Japan (February 2018)

 

We were dreaming of going to Japan for quite some time and this winter we finally made it happen. And even though we are sure that spring and autumn must be very beautiful to visit Japan we were very happy with our decision to go there in Winter.

One of our main reason to go to Japan in Winter was the Snow Festival in Sapporo. So after two days in Tokyo – where we also took the chance of the good weather and visited Mt. Fuji – we headed straight to Hokkaido.

the famous Shibuya crossing. Not as busy as it can be!

Upon arrival in Sapporo we picked up our rental car for which it was necessary to get a translated drivers license. Through snowy landscapes we drove to one of the most famous ski resorts in Japan – Niseko. We were staying in a very small town nearby and on the day we arrived it was snowing quite heavily…so driving conditions were rather difficult with low visibility – especially during dusk.

huge amounts of snow on Hokkaido

After organizing rental skis, avalanche equipment and a guide we did two days of skiing in the best powder snow we ever experienced! During our stay we had very nice and sunny weather – which is very very uncommon for Niseko. As a small downside the snow got a bit heavier in the afternoon due to higher temperatures. But we did not mind… it was great to be able to see the beautiful volcano opposite and looking down on the ocean while skiing 🙂

On our way back to Sapporo we stopped for a night in a little town called Jozankei. There was held a snow candle festival during this period which we wanted to see. This town is very famous for its hot springs and we really enjoyed our small “Onsen“ right above our AirBnB apartment.

Snow Candle Festival in Jozankei

We stayed in Sapporo for 3 days and every day we went to the Snow and Ice festival for several hours. We usually went once at daytime and then again in the evening when it was getting dark and the sculptures got illuminated and shows took place. It was cold but not super cold.

the level of detail of the snow buildings is fascinating

In between we also found some very nice, non-touristy places which we enjoyed a lot and also tried one of Hokkaido’s specialities – we liked the Japanese Curry Soup sooo much!

we had this beautiful Shintō-Shrine in Sapporo all by ourselves

After our time on Hokkaido was over we took a plane down to our most south-western point of Japan – Hiroshima. From now on we were in possession of a two-week Japan-Railway-Pass – a flat rate for trains. We enjoyed Hiroshima and our freedom to just hop on a train to go somewhere else. We did a half-day trip to Miyajima and another one to the Buddhist temple Mitaki-dera. We liked this place a lot even though or maybe especially because it was rather misty and grey and raining – for the FIRST time in Japan! (As it turned out this was one of only 2 rain days within one month).

Hiroshima A-Bomb memorial
near the buddhist temple “Mitaki-dera”

Our next stop was Kyoto where we spent almost one week. Of course we explored the city itself but we also used it as a base to explore nearby places like Nara, Inari or Himeji Castle. Well you can’t exactly call Himeji Castle nearby as it is 180km away but with fast and punctual Shinkansen it only took us 50 minutes to get there.
So far there were almost no tourists so we were a bit spoiled. Kyoto was the first place which felt crowded to us.

Kinkaku-ji – the golden temple, Kyoto
more than 1000 deer roam the streets of Nara freely

In Hiroshima and Kyoto it was around 10°C and there was no snow. So after Kyoto we were looking forward to get back to some snow. We planned to spend the next two days in Takayama and afterwards two more days in Yudanaka.

Takayama was a very touristy spot even though the main attraction was basically one street. But as usual we escaped the crowds by either going there very early or late in the afternoon when all the tour busses had already left.

tourist Main Street in Takayama

And of course…as soon as we left the main attraction and walked a bit outside of town to the many surrounding temples we were all alone again. And we were very lucky because we got fresh snow overnight and the temples were covered in snow which made them look even more serene.

Our last stop was Yudanaka – a very famous spot because of the so called “snow monkeys”. Supposedly they are the only monkeys in the world who relax in hot springs. And while they do so they look extremely relaxed.

In Yudanaka we treated ourselves with a stay in a traditional Ryokan (Guesthouse) where we enjoyed our classy room, to have an Onsen right in the building and the delicious traditional Japanese dinner.

Back in Tokyo we managed to be just in time to see the plum blossom. Unfortunately the last days in Japan were the greyest we had during our whole trip so we just wandered around different parts of the city and also met two friends in Shibuya and had a wonderful evening together with them. After a wonderful time in this fantastic country it was time to say Sayonara and head back home…

Some impressions are better transported through a (short) video clip:

YouTube video

 

NOTES & ANECDOTES

 

a Tatami Mat is a official unit of measurement in Japan. A standard room in Japan has the size of 6 Tatami mats.

in most of the Onsen people with tattoos are not allowed to enter. The reason for that is that in Japan the majority of the local mafia / Yakuza have tattoos

in public busses the driver has a microphone and is connected to the loudspeaker system of the bus. He says goodbye and thank you to every customer leaving the bus. This is one of the many reasons why you will hear “arigato gozaimasu” a million times while in Japan.

this astounded us: Japan is one of the cleanest countries we have been to but there is not a single waste bin in the street… no kidding!

no matter the air-temperature Japanese people seem to always be eating ice cream

if a shop is open past midnight the opening time is often indicated as “10-27 o’clock”

Japanese car navigation systems are very tourist-friendly. Instead of having to enter the street name in Japanese letters you simply enter the phone number – landline only 😉

where as in Europe the colors to indicate occupied/unoccupied are red and green, in Japan they are red and blue

our new favorite airport is Sapporo (CTS). It has a very relaxing and beautiful Onsen right next to the gates. We have never boarded an airplane as refreshed and good smelling…

Japan seems to be rather small – probably because when you look at it on a map you see it next to China and Russia. But Japan is actually much bigger than many (including us) think. Our inland flight from Sapporo to Hiroshima took 2.5 hours.

we enjoyed it a lot having pictures or plastic mock-ups of the dishes we ordered and ate. For Japanese it must be very weird looking at European menus without any pictures… no way to have an idea what Kaiserschmarrn or Käsespätzle or Apfelstrudel are…

we took a flight to Tokyo on a Friday evening. There were less than 10% women on the airplane. And around 5 Europeans.

Japan is a first-world country but the roads (especially on Hokkaido) were in very bad condition

sometimes the speed limits were just plain ridiculous – 40 kmh on an overland road.

there were huge (!) shopping malls underground where we got lost several times. It seemed as if they didn’t even want you to get out…

both in local trains and in the high-speed Shinkansen the seats get turned by the staff so you are always sitting in the direction of travel

within 17 minutes there leave 5 trains with a seating capacity of roughly 1300 people each from Kyoto to Tokyo

we took 6272 pictures and kept 700