Monthly Archives: March 2012

Tsunami warning

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For some reason, I don’t think that this is the most appropriate thing to put on the cover of the Japan Rail Pass.

Japan Rail Pass wallet

Wallet of Japan Rail Pass

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The port city of Otaru

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28 March 2012

Train

My mode of transport

Having survived an epic stack on the slopes in the morning, I decided to break away and go on an afternoon trip to the nearby port city of Otaru, on the recommendation of the hotel concierge.

The main reason for the trip, however, was that not many ATM’s in Japan accept foreign cards, including the ones in and around the hotel, and I was $20 away from effectively being broke.

After an 80 minute train ride, I had arrived, and immediately commenced strolling, if only to maintain warmth, as it was a balmy 5 degrees.

Established to cater for the fishing trade in the Sea of Japan, the town seems littered with European influences in its architecture, possibly due to a history of also catering to fishing fleets from nearby Russia. The highlight is the canal that winds its way delicately through a district of old warehouses that have been repurposed into restaurants, art galleries and the like. The presence of pedicabs give the impression it is a popular spot with local lovebirds.

Shopping street

Deserted shopping streets

However, perhaps it is the time of year, but Otaru didn’t seem as popular as it should have been. Despite being there for the afternoon rush hour, it seemed to lack the hustle and bustle you’d expect from a city of 138,000 people. The shopping streets were relatively empty and many cafes and shops were closed.

Yet there was noise. An eerie mechanical soundtrack not too dissimilar to polyphonic ringtones seemed to play along many of the city streets, definitely not the soothing soft pop music you would hear in Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall. And the spoken words broadcast through traffic light mounted loudspeakers at pedestrian crossings briefly reminded me of the loud, intrusive public broadcasts that are a fact of life in North Korea, but I quickly put it down to the Japanese desire to ensure that every possible eventuality has had a sign warning of it installed.

Otaru Canal

The canal in Otaru

Snow! Wonderful snow!

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26-30 March 2012

From Wakayama, we returned to Kansai airport, flew to New Chitose airport, and travelled onward to our next stop, Niseko. Dubbed the Aspen of Asia, Niseko is the go-to place for snow sports in Japan.

Snow at New Chitose Airport

The first view from outside New Chitose Airport

Incredibly, Japan Airlines offers business class fares on their domestic flights for an extra 1,000 yen ($12) if purchased in advance. We gleefully accepted the deal. Unfortunately, the only tangible difference between economy and business is the larger seat, but that was reason enough to get it.

When I exited New Chitose airport, the first thing that struck me was the automatic door, quickly followed by the snow. It was everywhere, all through the city streets, metres high, all at sea level mind you. I had never seen anything like it. The trip up to Niseko was fascinating with new vistas at every turn.

We were told the slopes at Niseko have two modes. It has its snow mode, where fresh snow falls daily and the slopes are incredible. Unfortunately, you can barely see far ahead of you. In sunshine mode, for a small sacrifice in powder quality, there is not a cloud in the sky, the air is crisp, and visibility is limited only by the distant mountain ranges. Luckily, we had the best of both worlds, with fresh snowfall on the day of our arrival and the most spectacular views with white as far as the eye could see.

Me and Mount Yotei

Mount Yotei

We hit the slopes the next day, and I had decided shortly after a confidence shattering run down one slope that involved me careening out of control and falling to the soft powdery snow numerous times, that I don’t like skiing very much, for the following reasons.

  1. I am not very good at it
  2. It is a lot of effort
  3. There is the very real threat of death
  4. You discover muscles you never knew existed
  5. Everything about it is expensive

I went up the gondola to the top of the mountain once, mainly for the view. But on the 10 minute journey up, I quickly decided it would not end well, the slopes were too steep for my ability, and decided to return to the more beginner-friendly slopes at the bottom of the hill. Sham used this to comedic advantage, telling the gondola operator I was chiku chiku (one of the many onomatopoeic words in the Japanese vernacular), while rubbing his eyes. The operator found me the next day and said, “aaah, so you are the crying boy!”

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the skiing I did do, and my skill level improved dramatically in the short time I was there.

Visiting an onsen

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Entrance to onsen

As much as I am able to show of the onsen without a lawsuit

Many Japanese feel that a visit to an onsen, traditionally a geothermally heated hot spring, is the best way to relax and unwind at the end of a stressful day, and right they are.

Onsen are typically split into different baths for men and women. Ritually, visitors typically wash before entering the waters, taking only a small hand towel with them, to use as a wash towel.

We visited the (admittedly artificial) onsen attached to the hotel in Niseko. Heated to 42 degrees, and infused with a plethora of natural minerals, it was a great place to go at the end of a hard, and painful, day of skiing.

As someone who will often alternate frequently between heater and air-conditioning in the car, the contrast of the warm, invigorating water beneath the surface, against the cool sub-zero air temperatures above was familiar and refreshing, and surprisingly didn’t result in pneumonia.

While I cannot show you a picture, I can describe the scene. Imagine an outdoor heated pool, slightly murky from the suspended minerals, separated by a small divider from the outside world. The onsen overlooks a small lake, bounded by snow two metres deep and countless bare alpine trees. The pièce de résistance was the spectacular view of Mount Yōtei in the distance.

Now imagine it filled with a dozen naked men. Of course, the big elephant in the room (pardon the pun), was the nudity issue.

I must admit to feeling a bit of quiet discomfort with the nudity, baring all in front of friends and strangers. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy nudity, just typically in my own place and time. And the more self-conscious side of me tends to take over with the mere thought of public nudity.

Yet at the onsen, these fears quickly subsided. No-one looks, and no-one cares. And this meant I could quickly get back to a blissful state of relaxation, and enjoy my visit.

Wakayama – it has a castle

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25/26 March 2012

Once escaped from the ravenous den of inbound immigration, having battled gypsies whilst jostling to maintain my position in the lengthy queue, we made our way via the Nankai railway to the small city of Wakayama, population 370,000. Here, we were to get some rest, and wake up rejuvenated for our trip up to Hokkaido the next day.

For a country famed for its 24-hour cities, this was certainly one that decided a little shut-eye never did any harm.

As we walked the kilometre from the train station to the hotel along main roads at around 8:30pm, admittedly on a Sunday evening. It was eerily quiet. Businesses were closed, the streets were almost devoid of cars, and we passed maybe only a handful of people on the walk. It strangely felt like a parallel universe resembling home, but with different signs, brands, language, and roadworks.

Wakayama roadworks

Brightly illuminated roadworks in Wakayama

We stopped to admire the very colourful lights set up around a site set up for kerb replacement down the main street. A scintillating array of flashing red lights lit the path. Suffice to say, this picture certainly does not do the scene justice.

Did I mention it was cold? It took about 15 seconds after hopping off the train to realise I had definitely under-packed in the warm garment category.

Cup noodles

I have a feeling the kettle company has shares in the noodle company

Soon after, we arrived at the Tokyu Inn. In the absence of open restaurants, I settled in to a warm cup of noodles. Which the Japanese kettles seem perfectly designed to cater for. I then quietly ate, marvelling at the illuminated castle that faced us across the road.

Wakayama Castle

Wakayama Castle from the hotel room window

Up, up and away… to the back of the plane

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25 March 2012

Flight: JQ19 OOL-KIX

So, the trip is off to a whimper. We arrived at the Jetstar check-in counter, only to find that my unexceptional but above-average seating allocation of 36J and K, a pair of seats by the window, was tossed out with yesterday’s rubbish. And in its place, were 28E and F. Awful middle seats. Both of us one (probably) fat, armrest-hogging passenger away from freedom.

View from the back

View from the back

“But these seats are better! They are six rows further forward!” argued the check-in agent, with a nonchalant it’s-Sunday-morning-and-I-am-hungover disposition.

Eventually, we were offered as consolation (no compensation was forthcoming, that’s not the Jetstar way), the back row of the plane. A pair of seats next to the toilets, where it was impossible to look outside and check out what was happening. But at least we were no longer trapped.

The flight, with the exception of the catering, passed unremarkably and before we knew it we arrived at Kansai airport.

Off to Japan!

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This begins the blog of my two-week trip to Japan with Sham. The adventure begins in Niseko, where we will get to play with a bit of powder. Moving later to Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima and Tokyo – some of Japan’s most famous cities, all for very different reasons.

I aim to keep this up to date as the travels happen.