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Top 4 Ski Resorts Near Tokyo for Families – Easy to Take Kids Around

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

When it comes to choosing where to go skiing, it is not so easy with your family. Especially if you are family travellers with kids, it is difficult to find a family-friendly ski resort that is right for you.
For family skiers with kids, the distance from the airport can be a pain… But, did you know that you won’t need to go too far from Tokyo to find a family-friendly ski resort? You can get to some great ski resorts in about 1-2 hours by the bullet train (Shinkansen).
In this article, let me address the top 4 ski resorts near Tokyo for families!

 

Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort 

Gala_Yuzawa

 

One of the most popular snow resorts near Tokyo is Gala Yuzawa. I find it super family-friendly because of the short distance from Tokyo station.
The bonus of choosing Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort is that the train station is directly connected to the ski slopes.
It is worth visiting Gala Yuzawa Ski resort for a day trip if you have one spare day in/ around the Tokyo area.

Another great reason for family skiers to visit Gala Yuzawa Ski Resort is because of its wide range of facilities and activities.
There is plenty of entertainment that kids can enjoy such as the spot called “Snow Enjoyment Park”.
Also, if you wish to learn skiing with kids, you can. Gala Yuzawa Snow Resort offers Group and Private lessons. If your kids are under 12 years old, you need to participate in a private lesson.


A lot of families take a morning private lesson and then enjoy the rest of the day with better skills.
Yuzawa is not only famous for ski but also Hot Springs. From my personal experience, it is an absolutely amazing feeling to soak your cold body in a hot bath. Very quickly, you will feel the muscles in your whole body starting to relax.

 

Recommended by JTB Great for;
A day trip

Duration from Tokyo
75 mins

Access
Transfer by train  Shinkansen: Tokyo Station to Gala Yuzawa Station


Season

History and Culture Mid-December to Mid-April

Opening hours
8:00 – 17:00

Facilities
• Locker
• Rental Gear
• Hot Spring
• Ski Gear Rental
• Day Care (2 – 6 years old)

 

Experience Activities
• English Ski & Snowboard Lessons
• Snowmobile Sleigh Tour
• Sledding
• Snow Enjoyment Park
• Snow Tubing

 

 

Hakuba Valley 

Hakuba_Valley_Ski_Resorts

 

Hakuba is one of the most well-known ski resorts in Japan among Australian snow lovers.
Hakuba consists of 9 different ski resorts and is considered the largest ski area in Japan.
Hakuba Valley is located at the heart of the Japanese Alps, and the quality of the snow powder is world-class.

 

Each resort offers a range of snowfields that will never let you feel bored.
The scenic 8,000m long slope is absolutely spectacular.
Of course, rental snow gear and English ski & snowboard lessons are available at each resort.

 

It takes 1.5 hours from Tokyo station to Nagano station by Shinkansen, and then an express bus to Hakuba Snow for 1 hour.
So, it is further away than Gala Yuzawa, however, soon after you will find out why the winter Olympics was held there!

 

When you spend a few days in the same spot, kids can get bored. If that happens, why don’t you take our “Snow Monkey Tour”?
It includes a little walking to the spot where you can see the furry little guys close up, and visit a temple dated back to the 15th century.
This is a fantastic one-day tour for both adults and kids.

 

Recommended by JTB  Great for;
At least two days

Duration from Tokyo
Total: 2 ½ hours

Access
Transfer by train Shinkansen: 90 min from Tokyo Station

Bus transfer Express Bus: 60 min

History and Culture  Season

Mid-December to End of April


History and Culture Activities

• English Ski & Snowboard Lessons
• Snowmobile Tour
• Sledding
• Snow Parks
• Snow Tubing

Experience  Things to do in Hakuba when Not Skiing

• Snow Monkey Tour
• Hot Spring
• Matsumoto Castle (80 min by train) See on Google map
• Kimono Culture tour
• Cooking Class

 

Naeba Ski Resort

Naeba_Ski_resorts_Japan

 

Naeba Ski Resort also has massive snowfields with great facilities. Naeba is located in the southern part of Echigo Yuzawa town where Gala Yuzawa is.

The maximum elevation of Mt. Naeba is 1,789m which makes Naeba Ski Resort popular due to the quality of powder snow. The snow quality of Naeba is said to be one of the best of the ski resorts near Tokyo.

Another reason that makes Naeba Ski Resort popular is the “Dragondola”: the longest Gondola (5,481m) in Japan. The Dragondola connects Naeba and Kagura Ski Resorts, so you can enjoy completely different types of courses.
Kids will love to take a ride on the Dragondola and enjoy up-and-down all the way to the other side of the ski resort.

If you are thinking of a snow holiday in Japan for a few days, Naeba Prince Resort will be a great option for your family due to its convenience.
Naeba Prince Resort is situated just right in front of the ski slope, and it offers great ski-in/ski-out facilities. It will definitely make your ski holiday easier with kids.

Recommended by JTB Great for;
A few days stay

Duration from Tokyo
3 hours


Access
Transfer by train Shinkansen: Tokyo Station to Echigo Yuzawa Station
Bus transfer Shuttle Bus: Echigo Yuzawa Station to Naeba Prince Hotel (Free for hotel guest)

History and Culture Season
Mid-December to Mid-April


Facilities
• Locker
• Rental Gear
• Hot Spring
• Ski Gear Rental

History and Culture Activities
• Fireworks (Only held during peak season)
• English Ski & Snowboard Lessons
• Sledding
• Snow Park
• Snow Tubing

 

 

Karuizawa Ski Resort 

Karuizawa_Prince_Ski_resort

 

Karuizawa Ski Resort is very accessible from Tokyo. It is only about an hour by Shinkansen. Generally, Karuizawa is not really known as a ski resort, rather it’s known as an upmarket mountain resort at the foot of Mt. Asama in Nagano Prefecture.


As far as the distance from Tokyo is concerned, the size of Karuizawa Ski Resort is satisfying.
There are a total of 10 courses that are comprised of 5 beginner, 2 intermediate and 3 advanced courses. Because of this family-friendly structure, Karuizawa is also popular for family skiers from Tokyo. As a one-day getaway from Tokyo’s crowds, Karuizawa Ski Resort is perfect.

 

Karuizawa is also a Tokyoite’s favourite because it is home to one of the largest outlet shopping centres in Japan. 240 shops await your visit to Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza.
Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is located right next to the Karuizawa Station where you get the Shinkansen.
The good news for family skiers here is that they offer a great range of eateries from family-friendly budget restaurants to fine dining.


To be fair, even if you do not go for skiing or snowboarding, Karuizawa is an excellent getaway from Tokyo to experience a different style of the day in nature. As a bonus, you will be able to let your kids play in the snow during the wintertime.

 

Recommended by JTB Great for;
A day trip

Duration from Tokyo
60 mins


Access
Transfer by train Shinkansen: Tokyo Station to Karuizawa Station

History and Culture Season
Best from Mid-December to Mid-April


Facilities
• Rental Gear
• Night Skiing
• Ski Gear Rental


History and Culture Activities
• Sightseeing Lift for non-skiers
• English Ski & Snowboard Lessons & Guides
• Sledding
• Kid’s Snow Park
• Snow Tubing

 

Summary   

These four ski resorts are highly accessible from Tokyo; they will definitely make your journey easier with kids as you will not have to travel so long. In addition, if you are looking to spend a day around Tokyo, Echigo Yuzawa and Karuizawa are only 1 hour away from Tokyo Station. These destinations will offer you different experiences for your Japan trip. Of course, all of these ski resorts are also recommended for those after a longer stay to experience Japan’s powder snow.  

 

Go_To_Japan_Ski

 

8 Things You Must Do In Hokkaido – Fun Winter Activities

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

Hokkaido has breathtaking winter landscapes for one to enjoy. It has been famous for their powder snow and thanks to that person from all around the world would flock to Hokkaido just to ski or snowboard. What a lot of people don’t know is that there are actually a lot of outdoor activities that one can participate in, apart from skiing or snowboarding. These include snow festivals, hot springs, ice fishing and many more. 

 

Enjoy snow sculptures at the Snow Festival 

Hokkaido_Enjoy snow sculptures at the Snow Festival

 

Hokkaido showcases beautiful ice and snow sculpture that consists of different sizes in the month of February. Think of the movie “Frozen” and you’ll feel like you’ve been transported into that very movie. You can experience this at the most prestigious snow festival – The Sapporo Snow Festival that is held in Odori Park.

Head there to immerse yourself with giant themed snow sculptures that change annually. The TV tower in the background is the best place to get a panoramic view of Sapporo. There is also a snow sculpture contest is held at the end of the festival.

Another of the famous winter festivals of Hokkaido is The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival. This festival is held in Otaru town in the second week of February annually. Snow sculptures are lit up in the evening and at night, especially around the Otaru Canal alongside with 200 blinking floating orb candles. In addition to that, the city is decorated with night illuminations, so take your time walking around Otaru during the evening as it feels very magical.

 

 

Go for an arctic adventure on an ice-breaking cruise (Ryuhyo) 

Go for an arctic adventure on an ice-breaking cruise

 

If you want an artic adventure, take the train towards Abashiri and Shiretoko Peninsula and hop onboard the Aurora Ice Breaker. The drift ice that you can see here is one of the most spectacular winter phenomena and can only be found at a few places in the world: such as the Arctic Ocean, Antarctic Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk in Hokkaido.

 

It is a beautiful sight as you will be on an ice-breaking cruise, cruising through an abundance of beautiful drift ice across the sea of Okhotsk. You also get to spot seals, Steller’s sea eagles and other marine wildlife in their natural habitat. If you like, you can also rent a dry suit to walk directly on top of the ice. 

 

Try out Ice Fishing Experience in this cold winter 

Hokkaido_Try out Ice Fishing Experience in this cold winter

 

 

Have you ever heard of smelt fishing? It’s basically going into a vinyl tent known as ‘koyatsuri’, that is heated it up so you’re nice and warm before you sit, and drill a hole in the ice where you fish for smelt and then make tempura on the spot with what you catch. Alternatively, you can also fish out in the open on the ice if you prefer the cold. It is a super fun activity not only for family and friends but with your loved ones as well. The popular ice fishing spots are Barato Lake, Lake Akan, Lake Shinotsu, Lake Kanayama and Lake Onuma. 

 

Enjoy rejuvenating yourself at the hot springs

Hokkaido_ Enjoy rejuvenating yourself at the hot springs

 

Hokkaido is home to hundreds of onsen sources. Noboribetsu Onsen, located in Shikotsu Toya National Park, is considered one of the best onsen spots in Japan. Alternatively, on the outskirts of downtown Sapporo lies Jozankei Onsen.

 

I do recommend visiting this area during autumn or winter as the valley is surrounded by a beautiful snowy landscape. Bathing in an onsen is the fastest way and also the most relaxing way to heat your body up and rejuvenate yourself. It is particularly romantic when you’re soaking yourself in an outdoor onsen and snowflakes start to fall slowly around you. 

 

Snow Mobile Adventures through powder snow 

Hokkaido_Snow Mobile Adventures through powder snow

 

In Japan, you do not require a driving license to operate a snowmobile, so why not take this opportunity to take a ride on the snowmobile and enjoy riding with the wind against your face through the untouched, natural surroundings of Hokkaido.

You can choose to do a lap around the track or even head far and high into the mountains of powder with an experienced guide showing you the way.  If that feels a bit too extreme for you, why not try banana boat rides instead. Something less adventurous but still fun regardless. 

 

 

Dog Sledding Adventures

Hokkaido_Dog Sledding Adventures

 

Have you ever wanted to drive your own sled with a team of dogs on a trail stretching out on a snowy white horizon? If you have watched the movie snow dogs, it is similar as you will get to experience the power and stamina of Alaskan Huskies, as you make your way through the trail, surrounded by picturesque snow-capped mountains. It is definitely a memorable experience!

 

 

Snow Shoeing fun times

Hokkaido_Snow Shoeing fun times

 

For those who love hiking and also nature walks, why not strap on some snowshoes and explore remote mountains, lakes, and rivers. Snowshoeing is similar to hiking, where you strap extensions onto your winter hiking boots to help you hike in the snow by distributing your weight over a larger area, so as not to sink.

If you’re nearby to Shiretoko National Park, you can even head towards the famous Furepe Waterfall that’s surrounded by the winter forest. If you are lucky, you will also get to glimpse the deer that inhabit the area or even see traces of other wild animals. It is an adventure that is loved by many as you get to enjoy a full day out in nature. 

 

 

Enjoy a Disney Frozen adventure at Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan

Hokkaido_Enjoy a Disney Frozen adventure at Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan

 

This is a special event that takes place in Shikaoi Town during the coldest time of the year; from late January to early March. During the Lake Shikaribetsu Kotan, a small village is made out of snow on the frozen lake of Lake Shikaribetsu.


You not only get to enter igloos, but there’s also an ice bar for you to order some cocktails, an ice theatre, a chapel to get married at, a foot bath, an onsen experience, a concert hall with live music and night illuminations for one to experience. It feels like a magical dream world is created temporarily and disappears again once the weather becomes warmer. 

 

So head over to Hokkaido during winter!

These are just some of my top picks for what you can do in Hokkaido during winter, aside from skiing and snowboarding; there are many more options!

If you would like to experience the beauty and diversity of Hokkaido, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us or your local Travel Agent and we can help plan the perfect itinerary for you!

 

Go_To_Japan_Ski

Get Your Tohoku Basics Covered – The Deep North of Japan

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

Take a dive into the deep north of Tohoku; a region that’s rich in culture, natural beauty, sacred mountains and warm-hearted locals! An authentic and traditional experience awaits in the north, far away from the touristy cities! 

 

Accessing Tohoku 

Tohoku is a region in Japan that includes six prefectures in the north of the mainland Honshu.

It is well connected by rail and air to both mainland Japan and Hokkaido. Another way to get around is by rental car, which is useful for getting to some small towns not easily accessible by train. 


By Plane

 

There are 9 airports in the Tohoku region and many airlines have flights domestically from Haneda Airport, Narita International Airport, New Chitose Airport, Nagoya Airport, Osaka International Airport and Fukuoka Airport.
Tokyo to Sendai (the largest city in Tohoku) is a little over an hour, while Tokyo to Aomori (the northernmost airport) is around 1 hour and 20 mins.

Consider taking a domestic flight rather than going from the airport to Tohoku via the bullet train – the journey is a lot longer and can be more expensive if you don’t have a Japan Rail Pass. If you do have a Japan Rail Pass, it can use up one of your days.

 

By Rail  

The rail system in Tohoku is quite vast and it’s quite easy to get around main cities and smaller towns. Using the bullet trains are the best way to get around quickly, though it can be more expensive, the Japan Rail Passes are a convenient way to offset this cost.   

 

Tohoku by Train – Which Japan Rail Pass should I get? 

Japan Rail Pass

 

Looking to explore the deep north via rail? There are a few options with the Japan Rail Pass for Tohoku, which one you’ll want to choose depends on how long you’ll be staying and travelling. Here are a few recommendations, or if you’d like more information please don’t hesitate to give us a call! 

 

Japan Rail East Tohoku Area Pass – 5-day Flex

This pass covers JR trains and JR buses in Tohoku however it is only a 5-day flex pass. What’s a flex pass? This means that the pass isn’t a consecutive pass, so you can use this pass for 5 days in a 14-day period. This pass is the cheapest option and generally the best value for money if you can condense your travel days to only 5 days.
Best to get this pass: If you’re only going to have 5 days of travel in between destinations in Tohoku. 

 


Japan Rail National Pass – 7/14/21 day pass 

This pass covers JR trains and JR buses across the whole of Japan. The pass comes in 7-day, 14-day, and 21-day passes. This pass is a consecutive pass, however, so keep that in mind when you plan your travel!
Best to get this pass: If you’re going to have more than 5 days of travel or if you’re going to be travelling on from Tohoku!

Japan Rail East-South Hokkaido Pass – 6 days Flex

This pass covers JR trains and JR buses from Tokyo, through Tohoku and to southern Hokkaido ending around New Chitose Airport. This pass is also a flex pass, so it covers 6 days of travel in a 14-day period.
Best to get this pass: If you’re going to be travelling in Tohoku and up to south Hokkaido as well with only 6 travel days.

See JR Pass Page

 

 

By Car  

The rental car is a good way to get around this region, especially if you’re looking to reach a few out of the way places. While the car hire is not necessarily expensive, Japan does have a lot of tolls for freeways so be aware that this will be an additional cost. A way to offset this is by purchasing an expressway pass – for a set price for a certain amount of days (2 days+), this pass gives unlimited access to the toll freeways included with the pass.                 

 

Tohoku facts

Tohoku_Facts

 

Once an area native to the Emishi and Ainu peoples before the Japanese civilization settled in northern Japan, the Tohoku region is steeped in history and culture that has been carefully preserved. Areas like Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima and Kakunodate in Akita are known for their preserved samurai districts that are open to the public.

Tohoku was known as Japan’s granary for a time, accounting for around 20% of Japan’s rice crop, and it is still known for the fabulous products that come from its prefectures – apples from Aomori, cherries and grapes from Yamagata, strawberries from Miyagi and peaches from Fukushima, to name a few!

Looking for more info on places to visit in Tohoku?
Take a look at the JR East Tohoku Pass: The 10 Best Places to Visit in Tohoku blog post

 

Explore Japan By Train

Japan Rail Pass

An Introduction to Japan’s Game Centres!

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

Despite the decline of amusement arcades in the Western world, Japan’s Game Centres have increased in popularity from the 1960s to present and have become a part of the culture. Experience it for yourself on your next trip to Japan!  

 

What are Game Centres? 

Ikeburkuro_Game_center_Tokyo

 

A Game Centre, or (amusement) arcade, holds a variety of different game machines and experiences designed to entertain. In large cities game centres span several floors, each floor categorised by game genre. From UFO catchers, fighting games, rhythm games, racing games, simulation games, to purikura (Japanese photo booths), Game Centres have a little something for everyone!

Game Centres are located just about everywhere across Japan, barring some smaller and rural towns. In large cities, entertainment districts will have more variety of game centres, like Akihabara or Shinjuku in Tokyo and Umeda or Namba in Osaka.

 

6 Tips for a terrific trip to a Game Centre! 

Thinking of heading to a Game Centre on your next trip to Japan? Here are some tips to make sure you have an awesome time!

 

1. Don’t worry about bringing change!  

There are change machines scattered throughout the many floors of the Game Centres, which will break down your notes to smaller denominations. Most change machines will give you choices for how much to break it down to – 500JPY or 100JPY coins. The machines can change up to 10000JPY notes, although I wouldn’t advise bringing that much money – unless you’re planning to game the day away!  

 

2. Check out the floor map!

At the front of the store and at the staircases or escalators, there will be a sign that lists the type of game you can find at each level of the store. If you want to play a specific type of game it’s best to check the floor map, as each Game Centres has a different setup. 

 

3. Take the stairs or escalators! 

In most Game Centres, there will be an elevator on offer to get to different floors. My recommendation is to avoid taking the elevator if you’re able to. The elevators are usually small and can take a very long time, especially during peak hours.  

 

4. Keep an eye on how much you’re spending!


When it comes to getting toys from UFO catchers, it’s very easy to get lost in the ‘one more try’ and spend way too much money! Set yourself a limit for how much you’d be willing to spend on the item at a store and don’t push your luck past that.

 

5. Avoid the sensory overload of the Pachinko floor!


Found on the second or basement floor, although not all Game Centres have them, Pachinko is a game played with either small pinballs or medals akin to a slot machine type game. These games are the closest you’ll get to legalised slot machines in Japan and most award tickets to be redeemed for cash off-premises. The machines make a lot of sounds and these floors allow smoking, so it can be sensory overload if you’re not used to it!

 

6. Club Sega? Taito Station? Keep note of which Game Centre you’re in!


Main games from publishers like Capcom, Bandai Namco, Koei-Tecmo and Konami will be available across Game Centres, however, some games can differ so it’s a good idea to keep a note if you’ve found a game you like. For example, Project Diva – a Vocaloid rhythm game – is owned by Sega, so it’s only available at Sega Game Centres.

 

Top 3 Game Centres to try in Tokyo 

There are a lot of different Game Centres to choose from in Tokyo, so here are a recommended few to keep in mind!

1. Club Sega – Ikebukuro 

Sega_Ikebukuro_Tokyo

 

This Club Sega spans 6 floors, plus a basement café and a 7th-floor café which feature collaborations with various anime and video games. It’s located near Ikebukuro Station and not far from the Sunshine City mall, where the Pokémon centre resides.

 

If you get hungry while gaming, why not step outside and have a taiyaki, a Japanese waffle-type cake usually with the shape of a fish, at the Sega Taiyaki stand? The taiyaki at this stand comes in the shape the Sega logo, although for special limited times they also offer taiyaki in the shape of anime characters.

 

2. Taito Station HEY! (Hirose Entertainment Yard) – Akihabara

Taito Station HEY! (Hirose Entertainment Yard) - Akihabara

 

Well known as one of the spots gamers go to show off and swap tips, Taito HEY has a mixture of both new and retro arcade games but the draw of Taito HEY is definitely the retro games. Taito HEY has a great range of classic shooting and fighting arcade games, even some classic Tetris! 

 

3. Joypolis – Odaiba  

Joypolis_Odaiba_Tokyo

 

Part Game Centre, part amusement park, Joypolis is part of the huge entertainment area in Odaiba. Here you’ll find all manner of game machines alongside amusement park attractions like a haunted house, indoor rollercoaster, even VR games! There is an admission fee for entry, or you can purchase the admission pass which gives entry and unlimited rides and games (barring the latest VR attraction, which requires a separate fee). 

 

Summary 

With a variety of different games, Game Centres are a good way to incorporate a touch of Japanese arcade culture into your next trip to Japan. Whether it’s a quick jaunt while waiting for your next train, or a few hours of fun, you’ll be sure to enjoy yourself at one of the many Game Centres throughout Japan!  

 

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Things to Do in Tohoku Japan in Winter – Winter Activity Selections

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

Tohoku, the region north of Tokyo has many top-class ski resorts and most are easily accessible by train, making it a great area to head to for winter fun. There are also many other winter activities you can experience in the Tohoku region and many of them, I would argue, is way better than skiing or snowboarding.

 

Whether it is relaxing sore muscles in an amazing onsen after skiing, riding a special train, trying other winter sports or visiting a special winter festival, winter is a great time to be heading north in Japan!

 

Getting Outdoors

Snow_shoeing_Japan

 

There are other winter activities on offer in Tohoku that you might like to enjoy after your ski holiday or in-between some winter sightseeing. Snow-shoeing is one such activity that I highly recommend. To be upfront, I am not much of a skier, having spent more time sitting in the snow than standing upright. So before trying snow-shoeing I was a bit concerned that it would not be for me.

I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite easy to do, no more difficult than an easy hike. I joined a snow-shoeing tour from my accommodation, Oirase Keiryu Hotel in Aomori Prefecture. This hotel has a wonderful onsen, many winter activities to try, as well as comfortable Japanese/Western-style accommodation, also don’t get me started on the amazing apple pie at the dinner buffet!

We were taken to a beautiful area near the Oirase Keiryu stream and provided with all the equipment necessary for snow-shoeing. During winter the waterfalls freeze to form amazing ice sculptures and our snow-shoeing adventure took us up close to some of these winter creations. A very enjoyable winter activity!

 

Snow Monsters at Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture

While in many other countries during winter, giant Christmas trees are being illuminated with twinkling lights, in Japan winter illuminations can be towering ice sculptures or a tunnel of lights.

 

There are many places to visit to see some truly spectacular winter illuminations throughout Japan and one of the best in the Tohoku region is the Snow Monsters at Zao Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. Zao Onsen is a ski area where you can relax in hot springs after a day on the slopes, much needed if you are a poor skier like me.

 

The unique weather conditions in the area cover parts of the trees in a thick layer of snow creating monstrous forms. From late December to the end of February these snow monsters are illuminated at night with a rainbow of colours. Take the gondola up for the full effect. Even if you are not into skiing Zao Onsen is a fun place to visit in the winter months.

 

 

Special Trains

Snow_Train_Japan

 

It is hard to avoid taking a trip on a train when travelling around Japan, nor should you, as they are convenient to get you from A to B. Trains are also great for catching up on sleep between sightseeing, although not if you miss your stop, that is a story for another time.

 

In this post, I want to share two train journeys that you won’t want to sleep through and I highly recommend you go out of your way to travel on. Meet locals and fellow tourists on an intimate train experience travelling up the Tsugaru Peninsula in Aomori Prefecture.

Tsugaru Railway runs seasonal trains with different themes. In winter the train has a daruma stove (coal stove) inside the train carriage to keep it warm. Purchase some locally caught dried squid that the conductor will grill on top of the stove for you or drink sake and swap stories with your fellow passengers while admiring the winter scenery.

 

In neighbouring Iwate Prefecture, the Kotatsu Train runs throughout winter. Kotatsu is low heated tables covered in a doona that many Japanese people have in their houses, they are warm and cozy to curl up under during the freezing winter months.

kotatsu

On this train, you can experience the same warmth under your own kotatsu while looking out at the spectacular winter scenery passing by the train windows. The journey is from Kuji to Miyako along the Iwate coast and takes around 1hr40mins.

Look out for the Namahage (demons) that visit each carriage looking for misbehaving passengers, you definitely won’t be able to sleep through this train journey!

 

Snow Covered Onsen

nzan_Onsen_in_Yamagata_Prefecture

 

If you have read any of my other posts you will know that I am a huge fan of onsen and it is probably what I miss the most when I am not in Japan. Especially when the weather is cold, there is nothing more comforting than soaking in the hot onsen water. It is even better when the onsen is surrounded by snow and the air is crisp.

There are plenty of great places in Japan where you can experience this for yourself and Tohoku is one of the best for this due to the high snowfall and abundance of onsen towns. Here are a few that I recommend.

 

Ginzan Onsen is like something out of a storybook. Located in Yamagata Prefecture, this quaint town has traditional buildings situated either side of a river with bridges crossing at intervals. During the day you can stroll through the town, visiting the small shops and cafes. During winter the place becomes magical with a backdrop of white snow.

 

Particularly at night when all the ryokans turn on their lights walking along the river in the snow is an experience that is not the same anywhere else. I stayed at Takimikan Ryokan, which is situated a short drive from the main town on the hilltop overlooking Ginzan Onsen. Dinner was served in our room and the hot spring had a spectacular view into the valley. At night they have a free shuttle to take you to the main hot spring area so that you can experience the wonderful atmosphere.

 

Summary   

So what do you think? Do any of these activities appeal to you? I certainly hope so. For those who are not into skiing and snowboarding or those who want to add more to their winter ski trip, there are some great things to try in the Tohoku region. Maybe I will meet you in an onsen next time!

 

Go_To_Japan_Ski

 

Four Great Ski Resorts in Tohoku Japan – Introducing Hidden Gems of Ski Resorts

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

I sometimes wish it would snow and although I know I can travel to one of the ski resorts in country Victoria, it just doesn’t quite compare to the amazing range of ski fields in Japan. After a day on the slopes, relaxing in a hot spring or drinking hot sake at a bar with friends are some of the wonderful benefits of skiing in Japan.

 

Many people will have heard of some of the resorts in the Nagano region as well as those in Hokkaido. However, in this post, I would like to introduce some of the great skiing and boarding options in Tohoku, the northern region of the main island. Many of the resorts are easy to access by train and offer great skiing as well as having a longer season than some of the other ski areas. 

 

Appi Kogen: Fun and Family

8 best ski resorts in Japan for families: beginner to advanced

 

This resort always sticks in my mind due to the catchy slogan, “Be Happy in Appi”. I think this encapsulates the essence of this resort, being a happy, fun, family-friendly ski area.

Access is straight forward, bullet train to Morioka, local train to Appi-Kogen Station, then a 10minute bus. All the trains are valid on the JR pass. This is a resort-style ski field, with no town attached.

Eating, drinking and playing is all done at your accommodation and there is a great range of restaurants, a ski area for kids and ski and board lessons with English speaking instructors.

 

This is a great area for families but not so much if you are wanting to get out and about on the town at night. The various accommodation options are of a high standard and the Hotel Appi Grand is ski-in and ski-out.

If you are looking for the next place to ski with your family in Japan definitely consider Appi Kogen. 

 

Zao Onsen: Monsters and Hot Springs

Frost_Covered_Trees_of_Zao1

 

This hot spring town is worth visiting at any time of year if you are an onsen aficionado such as me.

In wintertime, many people visit here for the skiing, the onsen and the snow monsters. Sounds scary? Due to the unique weather conditions of Zao Onsen, the heavy snow covers the trees on the slopes creating monstrous forms.

To get to Zao, take the bullet train from Tokyo to Yamagata Station and then it is a 40minute bus to the ski resort. What is great about skiing at Zao is that not only can you get out and enjoy the snow but also in the evenings relax in the hot springs and experience a traditional Japanese meal.

 

Many of the accommodation options have traditional Japanese rooms, but even if you are not so keen to sleep on futons there are some western options as well. Some people just visit Zao Onsen for a few days of winter sightseeing, but there are plenty of slopes including a 10km run that will keep the more avid skiers and boarders busy for a longer stay. 

 

Shizukuishi: Japanese Resort Escape

Shizukuishi_Japan

 

Saying the name of this resort 10 times fast is a challenge, but tongue-twisting name aside, this resort is part of the Prince Hotel Chain and is an excellent base for skiing in Iwate Prefecture.

There is only one hotel, the Shizukuishi Prince Hotel and it is conveniently skiing in and ski-out. A huge feature of this property is the amazing Takakura Onsen, a heritage hot spring with a particularly beautiful outdoor bath.

If you like a variety of ski slopes there are other ski fields not too far away including Amihari Onsen, Iwate Kogen and Tazawako.

 

To get to Shizukuishi is a bullet train ride from Tokyo to either Shizukuishi Station or Morioka Station then a bus from there. However, if you are planning on visiting multiple ski fields, hiring a car from one of these stations will give you more flexibility.

If you are bringing your family please be aware there are no kids group lessons in English, so this area may be more suited to experienced skiers or couples and friend groups.

Not too many foreign visitors head to this resort so if you want to ski with locals this is a great place to be!

 

Hakkoda: For the Powder Lovers

Hakkoda_Ropeway_Hokkaido

 

For those of you who don’t realise yet, I am not the best skier and what attracts me to a ski resort is definitely additional facilities and onsen, lots of onsens. So when I say there is no way I would be visiting Hakkoda, it is not because the ski resort is terrible, in fact, it is a fantastic ski resort, but rather due to my lack of skiing ability I would not be able to cope with the difficulty level of the ski runs.

 

If, unlike me, you are a very good skier or boarder or like getting off-piste, skiing through amazing powder snow and backcountry skiing than you should definitely check out Hakkoda. This is the place for the powder hounds.

 

To get here is not too difficult thanks to the bullet train from Tokyo to Aomori, then you can take a bus for an hour and you are there. There is accommodation at the base, although no nightlife or town atmosphere. If you like to combine your powder skiing with other activities consider staying at a hot spring a bit further away or even in Aomori city. This is the place for experienced skiers and boarders and if you want to avoid crowds come during the week. 

 

Summary 

Many Australians visit the ski fields in Japan, with most heading to popular resorts such as Niseko or Hakuba but there are many other resort options that you might find suit your requirements for an excellent ski holiday. For me, it is definitely the onsen that will help in my choice of resort, but whether you are a family, expert skiers, onsen lovers or after a place to ski with locals, Tohoku has plenty of options for you! 

 

Why I love Japan in Winter – foods and culture to warm you up

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

Cherry blossom and Autumn leaves are very sought-after times to plan a trip to Japan, but Winter has a few perks that are worth considering. Here is to why I love Japan during the cold months.

 

Seasonal produce

Winter_Food

 

From left to right: fresh oysters, snow crab, traditional imagawayaki hot cake, fugu sashimi

Japan is the place to explore new foods. On the street, at midnight, anywhere and anytime.
Winter is the time for the likes of snow crab, oysters, fugu, kan buri (winter Amberjack), and all sorts of citruses to come in season.
Japan loves seasonal specials, so all cakes and treats come in their wintery flavours of sweet potato, purple potato, chestnut, pumpkin etc… so you can rediscover your favourite chocolate or cheesecake in new flavours!

 


Drinks and foods to warm you up

 

hot-drink-machine-free-use

 

As you may know, vending machines are a common sight from busy streets to hidden mountain trails. In Winter, some drinks are offered warmly to keep you exploring. You may try hot corn soup, hot honey lemon, hot red bean sweet soup as well as coffee and tea, straight from the machine!

Sake also has a warm option, and you are also able to request your favourite plum wine or other liquors cut with hot water in lieu of soda water. Try something new with Amazake: a thick and sweet alcoholic drink made from fermented rice enjoyed over Winter.

 

Traditional Japanese Winter Dishes

From Sukiyaki (beef in strong sweet soy sauce) to Shabu Shabu (pork), from Motsu Nabe (offal) to Chanko nabe (rich nabe enjoyed by sumo wrestlers), ‘nabe’ (hot pot) is the start of the show. Each region has its own version and there is almost no limit to the ingredients. The soup base can be simple dashi broth, thick miso or soy seasoned soup, or even soy milk. They are all delicious and perfect to warm you up.

Oden is another type of stewed dish, consisting of various ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon, konjac, processed fishcakes and tofu stewed in a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth. This is my favourite midnight snack, and it is available from most convenience stores. You can also find specialised restaurants, for a more refined option.

 

Winter Wonderland

 

 kotatsu

 

After a day of sightseeing or skiing, there is nothing better than to laze out in a hot spring in the middle of Winter. After your well-deserved soak, drawl under a kotatsu – a Japanese low table covered in a blanket, with a heater concealed underneath, and enjoy your evening!

 

Illuminations

Tokyo_Midtown)_Christmas_Illumination

 

Inspired by Christmas lights traditions of the West, Japan has taken Winter illuminations to a whole new level, and many events are held to showcase breathtaking wonderland displays.

 

Spend New Year’s Differently

 

Hatsumode_Japan

 

Japanese New Year takes place on the same day as the Western calendar. Families gather for this occasion, and often shops or businesses are closed through the first week of January. On the evening of December 31st, traditional dishes are prepared in tiered lacquer boxes. This is called Osechi ryôri.

 

All ingredients and dishes have a meaning and are meant to bring luck, health and prosperity to the family in the new year. At midnight or on the first day of the year, crowds gather at their local shrine or temple for the first visit of the year: Hatsumode. The new year is a quieter family time, but more international areas of the main cities will also host parties, so you can pick your vibe.

 

Winter Activities

Going to a Sumo match!

Tokyo Sumo tournament takes place in January every year, so this is a perfect occasion to experience a match first hand!

See Mount Fuji with clear skies

Mt Fuji is a bit of a diva, but the very dry climate of Japan during Winter makes it a perfect time to catch a clear view of the majestic volcano.

 

Fewer crowds, more fun!

Japan offers a lot to do and see during the cold months, on top of having some of the best powder snow. If you still want to enjoy some flowers, early Cherry blossom in Okinawa start as early as January, and plum blossoms peak in February!

 

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Top 5 Under the Radar Japan Ski Resorts

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

 

If you’re a keen skier or snowboarder, chances are you’ve either been to Japan to check out the amazing deep powder, or it’s on your bucket list. Now, Japan certainly is not short of ski resorts, there are over 500 of them throughout the country, and you’re probably well aware of the popular International ski resorts Niseko and Hakuba. While Niseko and Hakuba are amazing areas to ski, we’d like to introduce you to some of the lesser-known ski areas in Japan that are also worth your consideration!

 

Shiga Kogen

Shiga_Kogen_Prince_Hotels

 

Located in the highlands of Nagano Prefecture, Shiga Kogen is by far the largest ski area in Japan. Comprised of 21 interlinked ski resorts all covered by one ski pass, there is something for everyone with terrain suitable for all skiing abilities. Shiga Kogen is well known for being the closest ski resort to the snow monkey park – only around 30mins by bus, offering another attraction aside from hitting the slopes! 



Season: Mid December – Early May                                                                               
A number of Courses/Runs: 139 
Closest Airports: Haneda & Narita                                                                       
Access; 
1. Shuttles run from Haneda & Narita Airport and take approximately 4-5 hours.
2. Purchase the JR East Nagano/Niigata flex pass, and take a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano Station in approximately 2 hours. From here there are frequent buses that will take you to the resort area within an hour.

 

Zao Onsen

Zao_Ski_resort

 

Located North of Tokyo in Tohoku, Yamagata Prefecture, Zao Onsen is best known for its surreal phenomena ‘Snow Monsters’, which are snow-covered fir trees. As the name suggests, Zao is also a beautiful onsen (hot spring) town, and there is nothing better than soaking away in the hot waters of mineral-rich springs after a big day on the slopes! The ski resort has a wide variety of different courses to suit different levels of both skiers and snowboarders. From beginner slopes to intermediate/advanced slopes where you can glide through the ‘Snow Monsters’, Zao Onsen can cater to all! 

 

Season: Early December – Early May                                                                                                                                     
A number of Courses/Runs: 26                                                                                                                                               
Closest Airports: Haneda & Narita (closer are the smaller Yamagata and Sendai airports)                     
Access: Purchase the JR East Tohoku flex pass, and take a bullet train from Tokyo to Yamagata Station in approximately 2.5 hours. From here there are frequent buses that will take you to the resort area within 45 minutes.

 

Furano

Furano_Ski_Resort

 

Located in central Hokkaido, Japan’s north island, Furano is famous for beautiful clear blue skies and some of the deepest powder in Japan! The town of Furano is particularly quaint, allowing you to enjoy authentic Japanese culture and cuisine. Aside from the wide range of different slopes for all levels of ability, you can also enjoy all kinds of snow sports, local arts and crafts, and illuminations throughout winter!

 

Season: Mid December – Early May                                                                                                                                         
A number of Courses/Runs: 23                                                                                                                                                 
Closest Airports: Asahikawa & New Chitose                                                                                                                           
Access: Coach transfer from New Chitose Airport or Sapporo city will take approximately 3 hours. From Asahikawa, it takes only 1 hour.

 

 

Nozawa Onsen

Nozawa_Onsen_Ski_resort

 

Located in the north of Nagano prefecture, Nozawa Onsen has gained more and more international visitors each year in the winter season due to it’s growing popularity as both a great ski destination and authentic Japanese vibe. Nozawa Onsen is the perfect destination to experience a traditional Japanese Inn (Ryokan) stay, as well as hot springs. The village holds the famed Nozawa Fire Festival on the 15th of January each year; one of the most unique and exciting Shinto celebrations in Japan!                                                                                                                                                   

Season: Mid December – Mid April                                                                                                                                           
A number of Courses/Runs: 20                                                                                                                                       
Closest Airports: Haneda and Narita                                                                                                                                       
Access;
1. Shuttles run from Haneda & Narita Airport and take approximately 5 hours.
2. Purchase the JR East Nagano/Niigata flex pass and take a bullet train from Tokyo to Iiyama Station in approximately 2 hours. From here there are frequent buses that will take you to the resort area within 25 minutes.                                                                             

 

Myoko Kogen

Myoko_Ski_Resort

 

Located in Niigata prefecture, just over from Nagano, Myoko Kogen is a classic mountain ski town comprised of 9 main ski resorts. The main ski area is Myoko Akakura where you can access the two resorts Akakura Kanko and Akakura Onsen with ease. The name of the game in Myoko is snow sports! While there’s plenty here for everyone, Myoko has some great options for those after tree skiing, off-piste slopes and backcountry skiing!                                                       

Season: Mid December – Mid April                                                                                                                                           
A number of Courses/Runs: 54                                                                                                                                                 
Closest Airports: Haneda and Narita                                                                                                                                         
Access;
1. Shuttles run from Haneda & Narita Airport and take approximately 5 hours.
2. Purchase the JR East Nagano/Niigata flex pass, and take a bullet train from Tokyo to Nagano Station in approximately 2 hours. From here there you can take a train or bus that will take you to the resort area within 40 minutes.

 

Why not consider one of these lesser-known ski resorts for your next ski trip?

For more information, pricing, and other ski resorts in Japan, check out our Japan ski website or get in touch with us to put together your Japan trip of a lifetime!

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8 best ski resorts in Japan for families: beginner to advanced

Tuesday, July 21st, 2020

 

Japan boasts a great snow reputation, and a trip over the winter (December to March) is a perfect occasion to experience white landscapes and trying out snow sports.
Winter in Japan also offers unique cultural experiences, and is there a better time to soak in hot springs after a big day out?
Skiing, snowboarding, cross-country, snow-shoeing and sledding and amongst the many offerings in most larger resorts.
The resorts we have selected offer family-friendly amenities, presented from beginner to experienced. Here is an overview to help you decide which one is best for your needs!

 

Beginners – Tomamu

 

tomamu_Hokkaido_hoshino_resorts

 

Located in Hokkaido, with a bus shuttle service from Sapporo and New Chitose airport area, Tomamu is easy to access and offers a complete all-inclusive experience. You will need to fly in from Tokyo or take a connecting flight, as Hokkaido is North on the main island of Japan.
Ideal for families, with a day-care facility, sledding area, indoor beach and wave pool, as well as an ice village, this resort offers slopes for all levels.
Many activities and events take place throughout the Winter, like frozen trees viewing, above-the-clouds-terrace and more.

 

Beginners – Bandaisan / Nekoma

Nekoma_Bandaisan_Hoshino-resorts

 

Tohoku is the powder snow paradise! Bandaisan offers access to two large skiing areas: Alts snow park and Nekoma. Located within 3h of Tokyo by bullet train + shuttle bus, Tohoku also allows skiing later in the season than most areas, with slopes still open in April. Perfect to combine with a cherry blossom trip!
This all-inclusive style resort welcomes families with rooms up to 5 guests, which is a rarity in Japan!
Soak in the natural hot springs at the end of your day, and enjoy skiing with a more local crowd.

 

Beginners – Naeba

Naeba is a famous resort in the Japanese Alps / Niigata area. With dedicated children areas, children lifts and separated beginners areas, this is a perfect destination to learn and get confident on your skis. Slopes are also wider than in other resorts, making it easier to navigate.
A snow park offering snow rafting, snow trains and snowmobiles is also available for non-skiers.
Accommodation in Naeba is mostly ski-in / ski-out, and of a higher standard.
Naeba is easily accessible from Tokyo via Echigo Yuzawa station and a shuttle bus.

 

Beginners – Hakuba

Hakuba-Nagano

 

Hakuba is one of the most well-known ski resorts among foreign visitors. It is nonetheless well worth mentioning as it is suitable for beginners and families! Ski schools and daycare offer English-speaking options from 18 months up, and a dedicated beginner’s area will help get you on the way to steeper slopes.
Being located in the Alps region, Hakuba is accessible from Tokyo airports/city and Osaka/Kyoto areas. This is the perfect option if you are also looking at touring around Japan, and exploring the country. A number of day tours also depart from Hakuba, including the famous snow monkey of Yudanaka Monkey park.

 

 

Advanced – Myoko Kogen

Myoko_Kogen_Japan

 

Founded in the 1930s, Myoko offers a more authentic Japanese experience than other highly Westernised resorts. In recent years, Myoko’s growing popularity with international travellers has made it a great destination, where English is available while maintaining its local vibe.
With an extensive range of slopes, and the possibility to go off-piste in some areas, Myoko offers the advanced skiers plenty of powder and fun, while catering to younger ones with child-care offerings.
The traditional history of Myoko also makes it great local food and hot spring spot!

 

 

Advanced – Appi Kogen

Appi_Kogen_Japan

 

Located in Tohoku, and accessible via shinkansen bullet train + bus within 3.5 hours of Tokyo, Appi Kogen is a great family-friendly option for advanced skiers. The area is famous for its heavy snowfalls and offers a great powder experience. In recent years, some off-piste has been open, allowing for more snow fun. The resort is very proud of its long runs and groomed slopes as well, meaning that you will have a variety of gliding on offer. Appi Kogen is a traditional resort and is not attached to any township. The nightlife is limited but the infrastructure and services are of very high quality, with English-speaking staff while there are comparatively less foreign visitors around.

 

Advanced – Kiroro

Kiroro-Ski-resort

 

Kiroro is a medium-sized resort in Hokkaido, offering a very upmarket experience. The lift and hotel infrastructures are top-notch and non-ski activities are plethora if your budget allows. Very family-friendly, Kiroro has a ski school with English available, as well as non-ski activities.
Allowing tree skiing, and having a fantastic amount of snowfall even quite early in the season, Kiroro is your upscale family destination in Hokkaido.

 

Advanced – Niseko

Niseko_Hokkaido_Japan

 

Niseko is probably the most famous resort amongst foreigners looking to enjoy that amazing Japanese snow. With very regular snowfalls, the powder is fresh and renewed throughout the season. Niseko is overall more costly than other Japanese resorts, from accommodation to lift tickets, but the infrastructure largely delivers. For those looking for a Japanese-style ski town, Niseko may not be the best fit. Niseko is very westernised, which comes with lots of English-speaking services, including day-care and babysitting for the youngest. Central Hirafu nightlife is also very lively, with Westerners enjoying after-ski bars and restaurants.
For the most advanced skiers, off-piste and back-country is largely authorised.

 

A plethora of snow adventure awaits!

A large part of the Honshu main island and Hokkaido is home to many ski resorts. When taking up ski for the first time, or travelling with little ones, and choosing the right destination can confusing. Each one has qualities to make your next ski holiday a true highlight, get in touch with us!

 

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The 4 Best Places to Buy Souvenirs in Tokyo – A Tokyoite’s Recommendations

Monday, June 1st, 2020

 

A lot of people think that it is easy to find places to buy souvenirs in Tokyo because there are millions of shops there. Fair enough… but it used to be very difficult for me to find the right places to buy souvenirs for my Aussie friends.

 

Then, one of my friends from Tokyo suggested where to go for great souvenir shopping. Her advice is perfect!  So, let me share her knowledge with you about the places that will make your souvenir-finding journey easier.

 

Tokyu Hands  

Tokyu_hands_Tokyo

 

Tokyu Hands has been getting popular amongst foreign tourists because they sell unique products! There is a great range of products: such as Japanese quality stationery, kitchen goods, and DIY crafting kits.

 

As I visit the Tokyu Hands Shinjuku store, I spend hours wandering around the different floors. From my personal experience, when I buy DIY crafting kits for my friends, they absolutely love it.

A large range of age groups can enjoy this store, so even if you have to take along the kids, they won’t get too bored. That is a bonus for family travellers!


If you are looking for good quality and different products, this is the place for you. Recommended large stores are as below:

 
Shinjuku Store: Japan, 〒151-0051 Tokyo, Shibuya City, Sendagaya, 5 Chome−24−2 2~8F Times Square Building 

Shibuya Store: 12-18 Udagawacho, Shibuya City, Tokyo  

Ikebukuro Store: 1 Chome-28-10 Higashiikebukuro, Toshima City, Tokyo  

 

Village Vanguard  

Village_Vanguard

 

Village Vanguard originally started its business as a book store but it is far from an ordinary book shop because the theme of their business is to be a “Playful Book Store”.

As the theme suggests, it is so much fun to wander around inside. I have taken my Australian friends who visited me while I was there, their eyes nearly popped out because of the product range!

 

There are plenty of Anime & Manga character goods, vintage items, and weird & cute treasures just waiting to be discovered! Village Vanguard covers a large part of Tokyo, so if you visit major areas, you will find one. But here is a list of locations that might be close to where you visit in Tokyo:  

 

Shibuya Main Store: Shibuya City, Udagawacho, 23−3  

Shinjuku Store: Shinjuku City, Shinjuku, 3 Chome−38−1 Lumine Est Shinjuku 5F 

Odaiba Store: 1 Chome-1-10 Aomi, Koto City, Tokyo 135-0064, Japan DiverCity Tokyo Plaza  

 

Loft 

Loft_Shibuya

 

Loft is a chain store, so you may see many of them across Japan! This store is becoming a popular spot amongst foreign tourists because of their stationery range. It is truly amazing!


There are a large variety of stationery items, but also Japan-themed products too. When I look for souvenirs for my friends, I normally visit Shibuya Loft where you can find stylish Japanese gifts.


The great thing here is that Shibuya Loft knows what tourists need! They don’t offer very typical souvenirs. What you can find there are modern and stylish souvenirs.

 

A lot of my friends love the ones from Loft Shibuya. If you are around the Shibuya or Shinjuku area, it is worth taking your time to investigate Loft.   


Loft Shibuya :  21-1 Udagawacho, Shibuya City, Tokyo 150-0042, Japan 

 

Natural Kitchen 

Natural_Kitchen_Image

 

Japan is pretty famous for its cuisine. Because the food culture has been developed in its own way, kitchen items have been advanced in their way too! Natural Kitchen was one of the most loved shops by my female Aussie friends. This is simply because the shop design and items are so cute!
 

What caught my friend’s eye there were Japanese plates and bowls. When you travel overseas, you always find it very difficult to pack your suitcase, but Japanese plates are not too big (most of the time), so they are a good size for souvenirs. If you are looking for something for your daily life in your souvenirs, Natural Kitchen is the place for you. 


Shinjuku Store: Shinjuku City, Nishishinjuku, 1 Chome−1−3 Tokyo 

Shibuya Store: Shibuya City, Dogenzaka, 1 Chome−12−1 Mark City West Mall 2F 

  

Summary 

I have covered four different stores that I normally go to for souvenir shopping. If you are around Shinjuku and Shibuya areas in Tokyo, it is worth it to take your time to wander around these shops! You will find something that you or your favourite ones love.

 

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Yufuin: Onsen Town – A Great Weekend Away in Kyushu Region

Monday, June 1st, 2020

 

Yufuin is located in Oita Prefecture, 10 Kilometres from Beppu, this charming Onsen town is spread across the foot of Mt.Yufu, and the view of this very extinct volcano just takes your breath away. It’s also an amazing place for anyone to visit as there are no tall buildings here, only boutiques, café, and mother nature.


To enjoy your trip further, do catch the Yufuin no Mori Express Train to Yufuin. This particular locomotive has a beautiful green exterior and there is a lounge area with a wooden interior where passengers can avail themselves of this space. Combined with the gigantic glass windows, passengers can’t help but stare at the scenic view as it’s very mesmerizing.

Upon arriving Yufuin station, you have the opportunity to soak their legs in the footbath instantly at platform 1 before they continue on their journey.

 

Onsen Lovers

 

Yufuin_Musoen-Onsen

 

If you love a good soak, there’s a total of 12 different public Onsen that’s available for use. Musoen has a beautiful outdoor bath that is 250 sqm wide that’s made exclusively for woman.

When soaking in the hot springs, you get to take in a panoramic view of Mt Yufu. Indulge in their signature Crème Caramel after your bath with a cup of tea. On the other hand, Shitanyu Onsen has a mixed gendered hot spring where you get to soak on the shore of Lake Kinrinko. 

 

Nature Lovers 

 

Lake_Kirinko_Near_Yufuin

 

As Yufuin is surrounded by traditional Japanese houses and snowcapped mountains, Mt.Yufu  is visible in the backdrop, a prominent feature of Yufuin’s skyline on a beautiful sunny day.

For nature lovers who love a good scenic walk, please take the forest route and walk for 1.5km. At the end of the path, Lake Kirinko would come into view, and oh boy it is stunning.

The bottom of this lake consists of both Hot Spring and Crystal Water. The flow of the water runs through so frequently that it completely changes twice a day. You can also hike Mt.Yufu and it’ll only take 90 minutes 1 way. 

 

Art Lovers

 

General-picture-of-Yufuin

 

Another attraction of this town is that it has an abundance of art galleries. One of them being – The Yufuin Kiyoshi Yamashita Museum which showcases eccentric artist work. Yamashita was known as the Japanese “Van Gogh” and is famous for his art that’s made from the cut or torn pieces of paper.

If you’re a big fan of Van Gogh, I do recommend checking his art pieces out. The other being the Sueda Art museum, established by artists Ryusuke and Shiori Sueda. The interior of the museum is also the same architect who designed Kyoto Station – Hiroshi Hara.

 

Animal Lovers

 

Yufuin_Floral_Village

 

If you’re wanting to interact with animals, head over to the Yufuin Floral Village. This village looks like it’s been cut out from a children’s fairytale book as everything is just so cute.

Walking through the shop really does feel like you’ve stepped into a different world as it feels so magical. They have an Alice in Wonderland cat café, Owl Forest and petting zoo there as well. You can even buy some food to feed the squirrels. 

 

 

Food Lovers


Bungo_beef_mabushi

 

A gourmet must-try dish in Yufuin would be the Bongu Beef Mabushi. Bungo Beef is a type of black-haired cow from Bungo, Oita Prefecture. When combining the beef with delicious Yufu rice, it’s a match made in heaven.

Another must-try would be the Yufuin Kinsho Croquettes. The croquettes have a crunchy exterior with beautiful minced Japanese beef on the inside.
Dorayaki lovers would be thrilled as they sell “purindora” here. Dorayaki filled with pudding instead. They not only look amazing, but it tastes heavenly as well. Feel free to grab a couple to satisfy that sweet tooth of yours!

 

Shopping on Yunotsubo Street

 

Yufuin_Yonotsubo_street

 

Yunotsubo street is the street connecting Yufuin Station with Kinrin Lake. The pathway is filled with traditional Edo period styled tile buildings that consist of cafes, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

The items that they sell are unique to Yufuin and you could spend hours and hours exploring the shop as it’s so interesting. The handicrafts here are hand made locally using high-quality materials. Do take your time and wander around the beautiful shops!

 

Summary   

In a nutshell, Yufuin is a beautiful onsen town that’s popular with the locals. It not only offers a charming magical atmosphere to anyone who comes to visit but it the experiences made here that are very memorable thanks to its unique gourmet food, art, and its scenic surroundings. So if you happen to be in Kyushu and would like to find a unique destination for the weekend, do stop by Yufuin as it really does give you that little magical spark! 

 

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JR Pass Kyushu Itinerary: 5 Cities to Visit with Your JR Kyushu Pass

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

 

The JR Kyushu Passes are a great way to make your way around some of the must-see spots on Japan’s southernmost island, Kyushu! There are seven prefectures located in Kyushu: Fukuoka, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Oita, and Saga. 

                                                                                                                     
Kyushu offers a diverse landscape and unrivaled natural beauty in the form of hot springs, volcanoes, forests, mountains, & beaches. If you’ve read some of our other Kyushu-centric posts, you’d have picked up on the fact that the regional cuisine in Kyushu is delicious, and second-to-none in my opinion! Furthermore, the juxtaposition of modern and bustling International cities with traditional Japanese culture; such as Buddhist Temples, Shinto Shrines & Samurai history, is a huge drawcard for those wanting to experience this part of Japan.

For the destinations listed here, I would recommend the 5 days All Area Kyushu Pass. Read on to learn about some of the exciting places that you can visit with your JR Kyushu Pass!

Fukuoka

Fukuoka_Yatai_Japan

 

Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu, and one of the most populated in Japan. Fukuoka has been an important gateway to the world thanks to it’s Hakata Port & it’s proximity to South Korea and China. When traveling via air to Fukuoka, you would most likely arrive in Fukuoka International Airport via either domestic hubs, such as Tokyo or Osaka, or International hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Taipei or Seoul. If you were to have the National Japan Rail Pass, as opposed to the Kyushu Rail Pass, then you could access Fukuoka via the Sakura Bullet Train from Hiroshima in only 67 mins (cost without the JR pass is approx. ¥9,100 per adult).

 

Fukuoka is abundant with interesting things to do. On top of my list, yep you guessed it, food!! Fukuoka is famous for its Yatai, or ‘food stalls’, that line the streets at night and offer a unique atmosphere. You will find them throughout the city center, but I recommend the areas of Nakasu, Nagahama & Tenjin for the best-of-the-best. Food that you will find in these stalls is usually the famous Hakata ramen (pork broth ramen), yakitori (chicken skewers) and oden (hot pot), along with alcoholic beverages of different kinds!

 

Now onto some daytime activities; there is plenty to do and see in Fukuoka. why not check out Uminonakamichi Seaside Park: a public park made up of an amusement park, playgrounds, flower gardens, a water park, and a zoo with open spaces perfect for bringing a picnic. You can rent bicycles and explore the area, and it is particularly beautiful in spring (late March, early April) as there are cherry trees planted in the parks and along the cycling trails. A beautiful scenic spot to visit for everyone, especially families.         

Uminonakamichi Seaside Park Fukuoka

 

If you’re after a bit of Japanese culture, Shofukuji Temple is another popular attraction in Fukuoka as it is Japan’s first Zen temple, founded in 1195. The Temple buildings have been destroyed and re-built on multiple occasions and they are not accessible to the public, however, the grounds are lovely to walk around. You can access Shofukuji Temple in just a 15-20 minute walk from Hakata Station.

 

I also recommend Dazaifu city and Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine as a day trip from Fukuoka. Dazaifu is accessible in around 35mins via the JR Kagoshima rapid line from Hakata Station to Futsukaichi Station (with your JR pass), a short walk to Nishitetsufutsukaichi Station to transfer to the Nishitetsu Dazaifu Line to Daizaifu Station (not covered on your JR pass but only ¥160 per person fare). This is a large and attractive shrine of torii gates and a pond with arched bridges and islands representative of the past, present, and future.                 

Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine

 

For those interested in shopping and entertainment, Canal City Hakata has been coined a city within a city and is accessible by only a 15min walk from Hakata Station. You can get your souvenir shopping done here and also check out the hundreds of International retailers. I suggest having a go at one of the classic Japanese game arcades and tasting the ramen at Ramen Stadium, a collection of eight ramen shops on the fifth floor, showcasing different ramen dishes from across Japan.                                                                                                                                                       

Finally, if you find yourself in Fukuoka in November, you may have a chance to see a Sumo tournament. Ask us for the dates and ticket arrangements as this is a not-to-miss tradition if you have the chance!                                                            

 

Nagasaki

Mt_Inari_Nagasaki_Japan

 

Another important port city of Japan, Nagasaki was one of the only ports open to foreign traders during Japan’s period of isolation from 1639 to 1853, therefore playing an important role in foreign trade relations. The influence of other cultures, particularly Dutch, is evident in the European architecture that can be found throughout Nagasaki, particularly in the Dejima district. Access with your JR pass from Hakata Station is only 116mins on the Ltd. Exp Kamome Line to Nagasaki Station.                                                                                                                                                               

One of the most popular sightseeing attractions in Nagasaki is, of course, the Nagasaki Peace Park that commemorates the atomic bombing of Nagasaki during the Second World War in 1945. The Peace Park is accessed most easily via the tram in around 10mins from JR Nagasaki Station (the tram is not included on your JR pass).               

 

Nagasaki-Peace-Park

 

Another popular attraction is Mount Inasa, which can be reached by ropeway, bus, or car and offers a stunning view of the city, particularly at night! The ropeway can be reached in only 10mins from Nagasaki Station by bus or taxi and costs  ¥1250 per adult for the round trip.                                                                                         

For those after something a bit different, I recommend booking a tour to Gunkanjima (Battleship Island). Located around a 50min boat ride from Nagasaki Port, the island used to be a coal mine inhabited mainly by the mineworkers and their families. It takes its name from the image of the built-up buildings resembling a battleship. These days, the island is abandoned after the mine was closed in 1974, and it makes for a very eerie but interesting experience.           

 

Finally, the open-air museum, Glover Garden, is another stop that should be on your Nagasaki itinerary. It exhibits several mansions that belonged to former foreign residents of Nagasaki, particularly the Former Glover House of Thomas Glover which is the oldest Western-style wooden building in Japan and is an important attraction outlining the history of the Meiji Restoration and Japan’s Industrialisation.         

 

Glover-Garden                          

 

As for food, you must try Champon in Nagasaki: a boiled ramen noodle soup dish with fried pork, vegetables, and seafood in a creamy broth, it is one of the most popular specialty dishes in Nagasaki!                                                                                           

For more detail on what to do in Nagasaki, check out our blog –> Nagasaki Travel Guide – 10 Spots You Must Visit in Nagasaki

 

Kumamoto

Kumamoto_Castle_Japan

 

Kumamoto is accessible from Nagasaki with your JR Kyushu Pass by taking the Ltd. Exp. Kamome line from Nagasaki Station to Shin-Tosu Station then transfer to the Sakura Bullet Train to Kumamoto Station. The journey takes approx. 120mins.                                                                                                                      

Kumamoto City is most famous for Kumamoto Castle and it’s Samurai history. Kumamoto Castle is a must-see when in this region as it’s one of Japan’s top three Castles. Unfortunately, the Castle suffered some damage during the earthquakes in 2016, meaning that the inner grounds of the castle cannot be entered at all times. The main keep is expected to be opened again to the public in spring 2021. This shouldn’t discourage a visit though, especially during spring, in late March and early April, as the hundreds of cherry trees turn the outside grounds into a popular cherry blossom viewing spot! The unique reconstruction of the Honmaru Goten Palace on castle grounds is also a beautiful sight and if you want to have a bit of fun, you can dress up in Samurai armour! You can access Kumamoto Castle via a 15min tram ride from JR Kumamoto Station (¥170 per adult – not included on your JR pass) or in approx. 30min walk.                                                                        

Another popular sightseeing spot in Kumamoto is Suizenji Garden, a stunning Japanese garden built in the 17th century by the Hosokawa family. For a bit of tranquility and zen, take a stroll through the garden, accessible by a 30min tram ride from JR Kumamoto Station to the Suizenji Koen stop (¥170 per adult – not included on your JR pass).             

Suizenji_Garden_Kumamoto

 

Outside of Kumamoto City, in Kumamoto prefecture, there are plenty of must-see sites also. Notably, Mt. Aso is a great spot to visit on a day trip. Mt. Aso is an active volcano surrounded by wide-open farmland and rolling hills. The main crater is accessible via a day tour, volcanic activity-dependent, and this is currently the easiest way to access the Aso area.                                                                                                                                                                                         

Another notable day trip from Kumamoto is Kurokawa Onsen. For those after a day of relaxation in hot springs, particularly during the winter, Kurokawa Onsen is one of the most attractive hot spring towns in Japan. Kurokawa Onsen maintains a traditional Japanese hot spring town atmosphere with many traditional Ryokan (Japanese Inns) and public bathhouses, shops, and restaurants lining the streets. Perhaps a bit tricky to reach as there is no train line out here, I would recommend hiring a car for the day to get to Kurokawa Onsen.     

Kurokawa_Onsen_Kyushu

 

Finally, what to eat in Kumamoto? Most aren’t going to be game enough, however, I highly recommend trying basashi (raw horse meat). Kumamoto’s specialty is a bit scary at first, but once you’ve tried a bit of the gamey sashimi with sides of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, Japanese horseradish, and/or sliced onion, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. It’s surprisingly light and delectable! For those not so into the idea of raw meat, try Kumamoto’s Red Wagyu Donburi: a rice bowl topped with medium-rare wagyu beef and an egg boiled in hot spring waters, it’s a delicious alternative!   

 

Kagoshima

Sakurajima_Island_Kagoshima_Japan

 

Kagoshima is located in the South of Kyushu and is accessible from Kumamoto via a 45-55min ride on the Sakura Bullet Train with your JR Kyushu Pass. This Bullet Train line runs through the center of Kyushu all the way from Hakata Station, Fukuoka, to Kagoshima (approx. 97mins).             

 

Kagoshima is well known for Sakurajima; an active volcano just across Kagoshima Bay. Sakurajima smokes constantly and minor eruptions often take place every day, it’s a very impressive sight! After an eruption in 1914, Sakurajima used to be an island in Kagoshima bay, however, the lava flow connected the land to the Osumi Peninsula. Most travelers still access the volcano via ferry, though, as it only takes approx. 15mins from the Kagoshima ferry terminal. There are many things to do on Sakurajima such as hike along the many trails, visit the observation points, have a hot spring at the Magma Onsen, and even sit down to a free foot bath at Nagisa Park Foot Bath!                     

 

A popular Japanese garden to visit in Kagoshima is Senganen Garden, which offers a unique experience due to the stunning views of Sakurajima and Kagoshima Bay. A particular type of cherry tree blooms here as early as the end of January, with the usual varieties blooming in early April. You can also see a peaceful bamboo grove, some shrines, and small ponds within the grounds. Senganen can be accessed by the City View Bus from Kagoshima-Chuo Station in around 50mins and tickets can be purchased at the Station for ¥190 per adult per single trip or ¥600 per adult for unlimited daily use – this bus is not included on your JR pass. 

Senganen_Garden_Kagoshima

 

Another site that I recommend visiting in Kagoshima is Shiroyama Park. The park sits atop Mount Shiroyama and offers sweeping views of Kagoshima city, Kagoshima Bay & Sakurajima from the Shiroyama Observatory. Spectacular views are also offered at the outdoor hot spring bath of the Castle Park Hotel that is open to the public. The Observatory can be accessed by the City View Bus from Kagoshima Chuo Station in approx. 25mins.                                                                                                                                               

 

For those after natural scenery, I would highly recommend taking a side trip to Yakushima Island; a subtropical island located approx. 2-3 hours from Kagoshima Ferry Terminal via high-speed boat. This is a beautiful spot for hiking among the ancient cedar trees and taking in the breathtaking forest. There is a bus network on the island that will take you to the main areas for hiking on the island such as Yakusugi Land (National Park area with 1000+-year-old cedars) and Shiratani Unsuikyo (lush green National Park area that was the inspiration for the Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke), or you could even hire a car and take the car ferry which departs each morning.   

Yakushima_Island_Kagoshima

                                                                                                                                                                                                   

When it comes to the regional cuisine of Kagoshima, I would recommend trying the mouthwatering kurobuta (black pork) as tonkatsu (breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet usually served with rice and sliced cabbage). 

 

 

Beppu

Beppu_Oita_Japan

Beppu is located north-east of Kagoshima and is accessible in just over 3 hours from Kagoshima-Chuo Station via the Sakura Bullet Train to Kokura Station, transferring to the Ltd. Exp. Sonic Line to Beppu Station (all covered on your JR Kyushu Pass). From Fukuoka, you can easily access Beppu, via Kokura also, within 1.5 hours.                                                                                                                   

 

Beppu is well known as being one of the largest hot spring towns in Japan. At the top of your list should be to experience one of the hundreds of public baths here. Relaxing in the warm onsen waters, especially the outdoor ones with spectacular natural views, is something that I love to do in Japan. Most hotels and Ryokan in Beppu will also have hot springs on site. At a lot of these bathhouses, there are restaurants that serve the local cuisine; Jigoku Mushi (steam cooking), where food is steamed over the hot spring pools giving you a healthy and delicious meal!     


Beppu-Cuisine                        

 

Beppu is also home to some types of hot spring that aren’t for bathing; Jigoku, or ‘hells’, are seven different, extremely hot, pools of sulphuric water in different environments. They are made up of different colours, some bright blue, some muddy and bubbly and one blood red! I loved visiting some of the hells in Beppu and tasting some of the different foods that steam above the hot spring waters, such as eggs and pudding! The best way to get around to most of the hells is to do a Beppu city tour.                                                                     

 

Another notable attraction in Beppu is the Beppu Ropeway, which takes you to the top of Mount Tsurumi where you can see a stunning view of Beppu City, Oita City, and Mount Yufu. There are some nice walking tracks atop the mountain and a small shrine as well. For those more experienced hikers, you can climb the entire mountain in around 2 hours instead of taking the ropeway. To get to the Ropeway, you will need to take a bus from Beppu Station which takes approx. 20mins and costs ¥420 per adult, per way.                           

 

For animal lovers, Takasakiyama Monkey Park is another attraction located in between Beppu & Oita. The Park is home to Japanese macaques (the same breed as the famous snow monkeys in Nagano). You can pair this visit with the nearby Umitamago Aquarium. These attractions can be reached by a 10min bus ride from Beppu Station.                 

Takaskiyama_Monkey_Park

 

Finally, if you haven’t had enough of hot springs, the nearby town of Yufuin is a quaint little town located nearby Mount Yufu. The town is made up of Ryokan, hot springs, art museums, restaurants & cafes, and boutiques, surrounded by farmland and rice paddies, making for beautiful scenery to stroll around. There is also Lake Kinrinko located about 1.5km from the station. You can access Yufuin with your JR Kyushu Pass with a change at Oita Station in approx. 80mins one way.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

For more detail on what to do in Beppu, check out our blog here: Beppu, Japan: A Day of Onsen, Nature & Food!

 

Summary   

If you’re wanting to visit Kyushu, the JR Kyushu Pass could be the right option for you. For any inquiries regarding the diverse Kyushu region and how to best make use of your JR pass, contact our knowledgable Japan Specialists or your local Travel Agent and we will tailor-make a special Kyushu itinerary just for you!

 

 

JR Kyushu Pass

JR Kyushu offers 3 types of Rail Pass: the All-Area Kyushu Pass (unlimited train travel on JR lines on 3 or 5 consecutive days), North Kyushu Pass (unlimited train travel on JR lines on 3 or 5 consecutive days) and the South Kyushu pass (unlimited train travel on JR lines on 3 consecutive days). The All-Area Kyushu Pass, as the name suggests, offers unlimited JR line travel on all of the Kyushu JR lines. For more information on the specific passes, see our JR Kyushu pass page here↓↓↓

 

Japan Rail Pass

JR East Tohoku Pass: The 10 Best Places to Visit in Tohoku

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

 

Weary of the crowds and looking for somewhere off the beaten track to explore?

Why not escape from the packed streets of the main cities and discover a region overflowing with stunning natural landscapes, samurai history, festivals, delicious food, and warm-hearted locals!
Spreading out just above Tokyo, the Tohoku region features six prefectures all with their own experiences to explore!

I fell in love with the Tohoku region when I had the amazing opportunity to live there for two years. The more I explored the region, the more I felt like I’d found my second home! I wanted to share my favourite places in Tohoku, so without further ado, let’s jump into my top ten places to visit in the deep North of Japan!

 

1. Hirosaki Castle – Aomori Prefecture 

Hirosaki_Castle_Aomori

 

One of Japan’s best spots for Cherry Blossom viewing, Hirosaki Castle is the ideal getaway for a spring holiday in Japan. Although the original castle burned down, it was rebuilt in 1810 making it one of the few castles in Japan rebuilt in the Edo Period and the only one in Tohoku.

The three-story keep of Hirosaki Castle is surrounded by Hirosaki Park, which holds over 2500 cherry trees. This is the main draw of the area as the park is spectacular when the cherry blossoms are blooming, around late April. The paths here turn into tunnels of perfectly pink blossoms and at the end of the full-bloom period, the moat around the castle becomes a carpet of petals. There are boats to float around the moat if you’d like to sit, relax, and enjoy the ambiance.

From April 23 to May 5th each year, the city holds the Cherry Blossom Festival. During this festival, the castle grounds are open at night to enjoy the illuminated cherry blossoms. It’s the perfect place for a nightly stroll and if you feel peckish there are food stalls around the park as well!

A short walk from the park, mosey on through the preserved samurai residences in Hirosaki’s samurai district. The Ito, Umeda, and Iwata residences all belonged to samurai families during the Edo Period, while the Ishiba residence were members of the merchant class. The Ishiba residence is still in active use as a brewery and a home.


How do I get there?

Using your JR East Tohoku Area Pass, take the Hayabusa Bullet Train from Tokyo Station to Aomori Station. Change at Aomori Station for the JR Ou Line for Odate/Hirosaki to Hirosaki Station.
From Hirosaki Station, take the Dotemachi Loop Bus and get off at Shiyakusho-mae bus stop which is the closest to Hirosaki Castle.

Best time of year to visit?
Spring!

 

2. Aizu Wakamatsu – Fukushima Prefecture

Turuga_Castle_Aizu_Wakamatsu

 

Easily accessed through use of the JR East Tohoku Area Pass, Aizu Wakamatsu is a very old town that was once a battleground in the Boshin War. Nowadays, it’s a great place to visit to see the beautiful Tsuruga Castle, try some fantastic Sake and learn about the Samurai history of the area.


Tsuruga Castle was built in 1384 and has been rebuilt after the castle was destroyed after the Boshin war of 1868. Featuring a unique red roof, the castle also showcases an exhibit to the history of the Tsuruga Castle and the samurai life of the time. The castle is surrounded by the Tsuruga Castle Park and if you’re feeling like a nice cup of green tea, the Rinkaku Teahouse is in the Park grounds.


If tea isn’t your cup of, well, tea, then why not try tasting some delectable sake at the Suehiro Brewery? In addition to sake tasting, they offer guided tours every 30 mins and even have a cafe that features original desserts made with sake!


If the Castle exhibit doesn’t quench your thirst for samurai history, then the Aizu samurai residence just might! The expansive residence was also burnt down during the Boshin War, but has since been reconstructed and furnished to replicate its original appearance dating back to the Edo Period.

 

How do I get there?

Using your JR East Tohoku Area Pass, take the Yamabiko Bullet Train to Koriyama Station and change there for service to Aizu-Wakamatsu Station.

How do I get around?
Catch the Aizu loop bus, which will take you around the main attractions of the city.

Best time of year to visit?
Any season is beautiful – special mention, of course, goes to Spring as the Castle grounds bloom pink with Cherry Blossoms!

 

3. Risshakuji Temple – Yamadera, Yamagata Prefecture 

Risshakuji_Temple_Yamagata

 

Around a twenty-minute train ride from Yamagata Station, the small town of Yamadera is a breath of fresh air away from the hustle and bustle of the cities. Most famous for the mountain temple of the same name, the small town also plays host to museums dedicated to Basho and western art respectively, as well as a few mom-and-pop restaurants and stores.

From Yamadera Station it is about a ten-minute walk to the Temple grounds where the climb begins. The stone path to the top of the temple has around a thousand steps, winding its way up the mountain through the lush cedar forest. Around the half way mark lies the memorial to Matsuo Basho, the site where he wrote his famous poem.

Once at the top of the mountain temple, the Godaido viewing platform will reward you with spectacular views of the surrounding valley and mountainside. Be sure not to miss the rest of the temple though, the paths and small temple areas set high into the mountain walls were amazing to behold.


After working up an appetite climbing up and down the mountain path, I suggest trying Imoni at one of the small shops in the area – Izumiya or the Endo main store. It’s a regional stew that actually has its own festival in Yamagata in mid-September where stew for 30,000 people is cooked in a large pot five metres in diameter!

 

How do I get there?

Using your JR East Tohoku Area Pass, take the JR Senzan Line from either Yamagata Station or Sendai Station to Yamadera Station.

Best time of year to visit?
Spring, Summer, or Autumn. Although there is a spectacular view in Winter as well, the snow can make the climb a little dangerous.

Please check out the map that the lovely shop ladies of Yamadera drew and put together for tourists;

See more details>Here

 

 Toreiyu Tsubasa – Yamagata with the JR East Tohoku Area Pass 

Yamagata_foot_in_high_speed_train

Why not arrive refreshed and relaxed, with the Toreiyu Tsubasa! The Joyful train designed to feel like stepping into a hot spring town featuring an onboard foot spa! It runs between Fukushima and Yamagata Stations and is available for online reservations with the JR East Tohoku Pass!

 

4. Ginzan Onsen – Yamagata Prefecture

Yamagata_Ginzan_Onsen

 

Take a step back in time by visiting the old hot spring town Ginzan Onsen! Said to be one of the inspirations for the Ghibli film Spirited Away, the main draw of the town is the beautiful streets lined with old wooden buildings and illuminated by gas lamps. A beautiful sight all year round, Ginzan Onsen is truly magnificent in winter.

Winter is also best for experiencing the hot springs the town is known for! Although there are a few public hot springs, I do recommend staying here for a night to experience the atmosphere of a Japanese Inn, including their hot springs and of course the scrumptious food!

If you’re not traveling in winter, there is a walking trail up to the old silver mine beyond the 22-meter waterfall at the back of the town. The trail leads up to the mine entrance, a section of which is open to exploring, however both the trail and mine entrance are only open from May 4th until the first snow.

 

How do I get there?

Take the train from Yamagata Station to Oishida Station, covered by the JR East Tohoku Area Pass. Change at Oishida Station for a local bus to Ginzan Onsen, the local bus costs about 710JPY and operates around every 60-90 minutes.

Alternatively, during January and February, there is a bus that operates out of Tendo (a few stops away from Yamagata Station and also covered by the JR East Tohoku Area Pass) that will take you to Ginzan Onsen for about 4000JPY for a round trip.

Best time of year to visit?
Winter! Autumn is lovely as well, but the winter scenery here is the main draw.

 

5. Matsushima Bay – Miyagi Prefecture

Miyagi_Matsushima_Bay

 

Considered one of the top three scenic views in Japan, Matsushima Bay is dotted with 260 pine-clad islands. Around a 40-minute trip from Sendai Station, accessible with the Japan Rail Pass, Matsushima makes for a lovely day trip, especially in Spring or Autumn!

Although the main reason to visit is the fantastic view of the islands, often seen by sightseeing cruise, the bay area has a few other places to explore on foot. A short walk from the station, the small island of Oshima is connected to the mainland by a short footbridge. Exploring this quiet island reveals a few small shrines, meditation caves, and viewpoints for the bay which are connected by trails.

Following the bay back towards the station, stop by Karantei – an old tea house originally part of the Fushimi Castle in Kyoto and gifted to Date Masamune, a ruler of Sendai at the time. Presently, you can enjoy a cup of green tea and some Japanese sweets while viewing the beautiful bay and the delightful tea rooms. The tea house does cost a small fee to enter however this also covers the cost into the small Matsushima Museum at the back of the grounds.

Take a stroll through the two temples built by the Date family hundreds of years ago, Entsuin Temple and Zuiganji Temple. Both temples feature beautiful grounds and buildings, with two gardens on the grounds of Entsuin, a Japanese style garden, and a western-style rose garden, while Zuiganji Temple is surrounded by shallow caves and towering cedar trees.

For a gorgeous nature walk, check out Fukuura Island – one of the larger islands connected to the mainland by a long red bridge. This natural botanical garden island has plenty of easy walking trails, which take about an hour to walk at a leisurely pace. It’s a great way to unwind and get a different perspective of the bay!


How do I get there?

From Sendai Station, use your JR East Tohoku Area Pass and take the JR Senseki Line to Matsushima Kaigan Station. This is closer to the main sightseeing areas than Matsushima Station on the Tohoku Line.

Best time of year to visit?
Spring and Autumn!

 

6. Hiraizumi – Iwate Prefecture

Hiraizumi_Chusonji_Iwate

 

Located in the south of Iwate prefecture, Hiraizumi is an ancient city that once rivaled Kyoto with its beauty and elegance. Once the seat of the powerful Fujiwara clan, much of Hiraizumi was razed by Minamoto Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura shogunate. Despite so much destruction, Hiraizumi is definitely worth a visit to truly experience a city that contended with the old capital of Japan!

One of the more famous remnants of the ancient city, Chusonji was a temple for the Tendai sect of Buddhism established in 850. Although the temple suffered damage to many of its buildings, two of the original buildings that survived include Konjikido Hall, which is covered in gold similar to Kyoto’s Kinkakuji, and Kyozo Hall where the sutra, or Buddhist scripture, were kept. The grounds of Chusonji also hold a beautiful Noh theatre stage, which is used during the Autumn Fujiwara Festival during November.

Geibikei Gorge, not to be confused with Genbikei Gorge, is a short walk from Geibikei Station which is a little further away from Hiraizumi. This spectacular gorge is best appreciated by boat, which takes roughly 90 mins, with a 15-20 min walk at the turning point in the gorge. The boatman sings a local folk song while you float down the calm river surrounded by the striking scenery.

I would recommend taking a night to stay in Hiraizumi or close by, as the local trains here can run once or twice an hour – it can be hard if you miss a train to fit it all in one day!


How do I get there?

From Tokyo take the Hayabusa Bullet train to Ichinoseki Station and change here for the JR Tohoku Line for Morioka to Hiraizumi Station.

For Hiraizumi to Geibikei, take the JR Tohoku Line for Ichinoseki to Ichinoseki Station and change here for the JR Ofunato Line for Kesennuma to Geibikei Station.

I would recommend getting a rental bicycle in Hiraizumi if able or catching the Hiraizumi “Run Run” Loop Bus.

Best time of year to visit?
Spring and Autumn! There is a lot of Wisteria around too, so May can be a good time to visit to see them in full bloom!

 

7. Kakunodate – Akita Prefecture

Kokunodate_Akita

 

A former castle town and samurai stronghold, Kakunodate has been heralded at the little Kyoto of the North, and rightly so! The town features some of the best examples of samurai architecture in all of Japan.

Walking the samurai district is a stunning experience in Spring, as the streets here are lined with weeping Cherry Blossoms. Most of the samurai properties here are open to the public, although I would definitely recommend the Ishiguro House and the Aoyagi House if you’re on a time limit and not able to visit all of them! These complexes contain museum collections, restaurants, and gift shops. The displays provide information in both English and Japanese on the traditions, lifestyles and the historical context of the town. For anyone interested in samurai history I highly recommend giving these properties and the museums nearby a look!


A little further down the street from the samurai district is the merchant district which also holds some interesting buildings! Among these is the Ando Jozo Miso storehouse and shop, which is a Meiji Period brick storehouse that still sells miso and soya sauce in the same method it has been produced in for 150 years! Some miso or soya makes for a good souvenir, as well as a gift made locally from kabazaiku (cherry-bark woodwork)!

 

How do I get there?

From Tokyo Station, catch the Komachi Bullet Train to Kakunodate Station.

Best time of year to visit?
Spring!

 

8. Nyuto Onsen – Akita Prefecture 

Nyuto_Onsen_Akita

 

Deep in the mountains of the Akita prefecture, not too far from the samurai town of Kakunodate, Nyuto Onsen is actually a collection of seven different onsens all set in the same beautiful mountain area. It’s also an area less well known than other onsen towns, so a great place to go if you’re wanting to get away from busy bathhouses!

I highly recommend staying a night and getting the Yumegiri Pass (only available to those staying the night), which includes a one-day bus pass and admission to the seven onsens. Although it’s more than possible to walk if you’re so inclined, I wouldn’t recommend it in the winter thanks to all the snow! The area feels so untouched by the modern era, it’s very easy to get lost in the beauty of the natural world all around you.

The Seven Onsen here all have their own different properties, said to help with a wide range of health problems. The most famous onsen here is Tsurunoyu, with opaque water and a thatched-roof terrace over the outdoor bath. It is also the oldest place in Nyuto Onsen, with roots dating back to the Edo Period, some even with a fireplace set into the floor of the room!


How do I get there?

Using your JR East Tohoku Area Pass, take the Komachi Bullet Train from Tokyo Station to Tazawako Station.

From Tazawako Station, take the bus to Nyuto Onsen which takes around 50 mins and costs around 820 JPY.

Best time of year to visit?
Winter, if you’re wanting to get the full experience of the hot onsen water and the cold snowy conditions!

 

9. Lake Towada – Aomori Prefecture

Lake_Towada_Akita

 

A beautiful blue lake surrounded by an untouched natural landscape, Lake Towada is the largest caldera lake on mainland Japan. Part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, the lake is on the border of Akita and Aomori prefectures and is most famous for its autumn colours and the Oirase stream.

The peaceful, undeveloped lake has a small town called Yasumiya, which in addition to a few attractions like the Towada Shrine, is one of the two areas the sightseeing cruise docks. These sightseeing cruises are the best way to really appreciate the beauty of the lake. There are two different cruises you can take, a round trip or a one way from Yasumiya to Nenokuchi or vice versa.

If you’re looking to do some hiking in this area I would recommend staying the night in town as it does take a bit of time to get to the lake and back out to Aomori city. The small township does start closing up quite early as well, especially in Autumn.

Another point of interest nearby, perhaps even more well known than the lake itself, is Oirase Stream. This stream is the only outlet for Lake Towada and luckily the bus route goes next to it so it’s quite easy to get the bus there. The rushing water covers the sound of nearby traffic, drawing you into an instagram-worthy world of your own.

 

How do I get there?

Using your JR East Tohoku Area Pass, take the Hayabusa Bullet Train from Tokyo Station to Aomori Station. Change at Aomori station for the JR Bus bound for Lake Towada.

Best time of year to visit?
Autumn!

 

10. Resort Shirakami and Furofushi Onsen 

Shirakami_Furofushi_Onsen_Tohoku

 

Take a leisurely journey along the North-West coast of Japan, experience one of the most picturesque train rides, and take a bath up close and personal with the ocean! The Joyful Train Resort Shirakami will present you with a stunning view of the coast as well as entertain you with performances on board!

Leaving from either Aomori or Akita, the Resort Shirakami can be booked online before you travel with the JR East Tohoku Area Pass! The journey takes around 5 hours from start to finish, although we’ll be stopping partway to get to the ocean baths of Fukaura. The train will slow down when approaching particularly scenic locations so that you have time to snap photos from the larger panoramic style windows. Along the way there are performances from local artists, depending on the day and service, most popular are the musicians who play Shamisen and sing traditional Japanese folk songs!

Disembark at the JR Wespa Tsubakiyama Station and board the free shuttle bus to Koganezaki Furofushi Onsen-Hotel. This has the most amazing outdoor bath set on the peninsula protruding into the Sea of Japan, it really feels like you’re a part of the beach! I recommend staying the night at the hotel here as the outdoor bath closes for day-trip customers at 4 pm and the best part of this outdoor bath is experiencing the sunset over the ocean horizon.

After all this relaxation, why not stretch your legs a little and explore the hiking trails around the Juniko, a series of small lakes and ponds in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakami-Sanchi. This extensive mountain range stretches over the border of Akita and Aomori prefectures. Among the lakes of Juniko is Aoike, famous for its unnaturally blue water which creates an enchanting atmosphere amidst the verdant forest.

 

How do I get there?

Using your JR East Tohoku Area Pass, from Aomori or Akita Stations, take the Resort Shirakami to the Wespa Tsubakiyama Station.

Best time of year to visit?
Summer, Spring, Autumn.

 

Summary  

With a wide range of experiences to explore, the Tohoku region is ideal for getting away from the hustle and bustle of Japan’s big cities! I hope that these places have inspired you to visit and fall in love with Tohoku as I have. Why not give us a call and we can put together the best itinerary for you!

 

Japan Rail Pass

Enoshima – Most Underrated Tokyo Day Trip?

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

Have a day to spare? Sick of the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds of Tokyo? Want to make the most of your Japan Rail Pass? Let me tell you why Enoshima is one of the most underrated day trips from Tokyo and some of the best places to visit to make the most of your adventure.

Enoshima Shrines

Enoshima_shrine

 

Enoshima is a small offshore island around an hour from the hustle-bustle of Tokyo city. Located in Sagami Bay, Enoshima is linked to the mainland by a 600m bridge over the ocean with views of the closest swimming and surfing beaches to Tokyo and Yokohama. Scattered around the island are three shrines (Hetsumiya, Nakatsumiya, and Okustumiya) that make up the collectively known, Enoshima Shrine. All three are located around ten minutes from one another and can be visited by foot or by the outdoor escalators. The shrines are dedicated to Benzaiten, the goddess of art, music, and good fortune. Visitors can wash money at the designated shrines as Benzaiten is said to multiply it! 

 

Local Food

Shirasu_Local_Enoshima_Food

 

Enoshima is famous for its shirasu, or whitebait. Specifically, shirasu-don, shirasu served over rice. Benzaiten Nakamise – the main street leading up towards the shrines and further into the island – is lined with small businesses selling local delicacies. Including tako senbai, octopus crackers that are very hard to miss due to their massive size. Ice cream monaka, or green tea ice-cream sandwiched between two crispy wafer shells with red bean paste is perfect for sustaining visitors for the short hike through the island, or even as a recuperation snack on the way back down. 

 

Caves

Enoshim_Caves

 

On the furthest side of Enoshima lies a rocky coastline called Chigogafuchi plateau. The view overlooks the ocean and is said to be one of the most romantic scenic views in Kanagawa. Just a little further along the coast are the Iwaya caves, which visitors can enter for 500JYP. Inside is a shrine, built 1500 years ago, once a site visited by monks and influential samurai after long pilgrimages.  

 

Enoshima Views

Enoshima_beautiful_view

Everywhere you look on Enoshima are picturesque views over the ocean, narrow, moss-lined stairways and local flora. Standing in the centre of the island is the Enoshima Sea Candle, an observation tower with an indoor and outdoor observation deck. A 360 view of the surrounding beaches and the entire island is visible from the top. Visitors might even spot Mt. Fuji on a clear day. The Sea Candle sits within the Samuel Cocking Garden, a botanical garden full of flowers and plants from all seasons. 

 

Enoshima Cats

Enoshima_cat

 

Before heading back to the mainland, it’s worth taking the ten-minute walk out to the lighthouse and boardwalk. Back down Benzaiten Nakamise-Dori and past the sea-front food stores boasting buckets and buckets of live fish, crabs, octopus, and other weird sea-dwelling creatures ready to be cooked on request.  During the walk, you may see cats lounging in the sun near the yacht port, Enoshima is known for its feline inhabitants and it’s not uncommon to see locals putting down food and taking care of their furry guests. However, sadly, Enoshima’s cat population has dwindled in the last few years due to the island’s growing popularity. The white lighthouse stands on the end of the long boardwalk. Be careful not to get wet as the waves crash against the rocks and splash up through the dock. (They can get dangerously large!) Watch as the yachts arrive and depart and fishermen do their best to reel in something big on the port below. 

 

Summary   

Japan Rail Pass holders can take the JR Tokaido Line from Tokyo station, changing to the locally operated Enoshima Electric Railway line to Enoshima Station. The Enoshima Electric Railway (or Enoden) is not covered by the Japan Rail Pass however a trip on this old-timey train is worth it for the experience and views alone.  Why not join a tour? Our Kamakura & Enoshima Bay Drive 1-Day Tour also visit Kamakura, home of the Great Buddha, and is only half an hour from Enoshima. Tick off two must-see destinations in one day without having to navigate public transport and maps!

 

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Travelling Gluten Free in Japan – It Is Possible!

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

Travel preparations can be stressful and difficult at the best of times but this is exacerbated even further for people traveling to Japan with gluten intolerance or Coeliac Disease. Food is an integral part of a country’s cultural identity and a necessity to experience if you want to fully submerse yourself in local life. Someone with gluten intolerance must contend with unfamiliar ingredients and a language barrier when traveling which can cause a great deal of stress.
Do not be discouraged, I hope to provide you with some useful tips on how to experience the beauty of Japan whilst enjoying a rich gluten-free diet! On the surface, Japan can seem like a gluten-free haven as the staple grain is rice and not wheat. The problem lies within a lot of the sauces used in Japanese cooking as they contain soy and wheat. Coeliac Disease and gluten intolerance are not common in Japan so there is no real demand for gluten-free food. Japanese diners do not usually ask for a meal to be modified at a restaurant, so it unsurprising that a chef, who would have worked for years perfecting a dish, would consider it rude to make such a request and refuse. But there are some ways to make this easier:

 

Use Translation Cards

Osaka_Shinsekai_district

 

The language barrier can be difficult in Japan as English is not widely spoken. These useful phrases will make eating out at a restaurant a lot easier:

私は、グルテンの摂取によって発症する「セアリック病」という深刻な病気をもっています。そのため、小麦・大麦・ライ麦が使われている食品は食べられません。小麦を原料としている醤油や味噌もいっさい口にできません。
I have a serious disease called Coeliac Disease, so I cannot eat food that contains gluten. I cannot eat anything made with wheat, rye, or barley. That means that I cannot eat soy sauce that contains wheat or miso that contains wheat.

私はグルテンを含む食品が食べられません。小麦・大麦・ライ麦が使われているものは全部です。そのため、小麦を原料としている醤油や味噌もいっさい口にできません。
I cannot eat food that contains gluten. So, I cannot eat anything made with wheat, rye, or barley. That means that I cannot eat soy sauce that contains wheat or miso that contains wheat.

Click here to download r a more comprehensive translation card. This can be printed or saved on your phone for easy use.

 

Know Your Kanji!

Sushi_lantern

 

I recommend staying at a hotel with its own little kitchenette so that you can prepare gluten-free food and snacks. It can be a little daunting going grocery shopping and trying to decipher a list of ingredients in a foreign language. Below is a list of kanji to look for when grocery shopping:

グルテン (Guruten) – Gluten 無グルテンの (Mu Guruten No) – Gluten Free
醬油 (Shoyu) – Soy Sauce 小麦 (Komugi) – Wheat
大麦 (Oomugi) – Barley ライ麦 (Raimugi) – Rye
オーツ麦 (Otsumugi) – Oats 味噌 (Miso) – Miso

There are so many convenience stores in Japan and they are quite different from what we are used to in Australia – the food is of a higher standard and affordable. They sell onigiri rice balls and while not all the flavours are gluten-free, the salmon and plain ones are. The pain onigiri is actually my favorite and I would eat them for breakfast or for a quick snack!

 

Bring Your Own Soy Sauce

Bring  your own soya

 

Soy sauce is used in the vast majority of Japanese dishes. It is definitely worth bringing your own bottle of soy sauce to ensure that it is gluten-free while also not being contaminated with other gluten products. Avoid buying tamari in Japan as not all tamari is gluten-free!

 

Safest Authentic Japanese Food

Yakiniku_Japan

 

If you really want to experience some local Japanese cuisine then I highly recommend going to yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) restaurants. Here you can ask for the food to be made with salt (shio) instead of soy sauce (shoyu). At yakiniku restaurants, you are seated at your own clean grill so there is no risk of cross-contamination while also having an authentic Japanese experience.                                                                                                                                             Sashimi is another famous Japanese dish that can be gluten-free. It is thinly sliced raw food, mainly fish (but can also be other meats and tofu), available at many types of restaurants and izakaya. Sashimi is seasoned with soy sauce but this is done by the diner’s discretion, just use your bottle of gluten-free tamari!

A Hidden Gem in Tokyo

Little Bird Café is a wonderful café in Tokyo that focuses on gluten-free versions of Japanese and Western food! The chef is a Coeliac and has taken care to provide delicious gluten-free dishes to other gluten intolerant people. Just a 6-minute walk from Yoyogi Hachiman Station, you can try some gluten-free versions of classic Japanese dishes like ramen, gyoza, and chicken karaage. The menu is in English and you can finish off your amazing meal with some incredible gluten-free pancakes or waffles! 

 

Summary 

Japan can be a pretty tough country to navigate without the troubles associated with gluten intolerance. Do not let this deter you from visiting this stunning and unique country. I hope that this has provided you with some useful information to enjoy a gluten-free adventure in Japan! Please do not hesitate to contact us at JTB or your local Travel Agent and we can assist with making your travel plans as stress-free as possible!

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