Japan, You were everything I ever imagined and more! By Sam Walklake
Japan, You were everything I ever imagined and more.
Where do I start, the food, the people or maybe their bullet trains. Before traveling to Japan I had longed to explore this destination, partly because I wanted to experience the powder of the Japanese Alps. This would be just a small slice of what Japan would prove to showcase over a short two week trip.
After landing in Tokyo there was one thing on my mind... FOOD. Airport food isn't usually something I would jump straight into, especially knowing I could go straight to exploring a city like Tokyo, but we had to wait for a transfer to Hakuba in the Alps, so airport food it was. Before reaching the counter the smells of the kitchen took a hold of me. I had already forgotten that not much English is spoken in Japan so the old game of "point at the picture of what dish I would like" began. I still wasn't sure what I had ordered until one of my friends told me when we sat down to eat, big bowl of udon noodle soup... I was hooked.
Walking to our transfer bus we came across a vending machine, I had seen photos and heard that the vending machines in Japan were somewhat of a novelty to travellers (and at this point I have to mention I love coffee) but I was never told that they held hot cans of coffee. I hadn't even left the airport and I didn't want to leave this country, and to be honest the hot coffee in a can was good. The bus ride was nothing short of amazing, after pulling out of the airport the bus rolled onto the freeway and gave us a view of Tokyo city from a far for at least half an hour, the scale of this place was crazy.
A few hours later after a couple of food and toilet breaks we started to climb and make our way through the Japanese Alps. As the sun started to set I wondered if we would get a visual of our destination before we got there. Coming through the last lot of bends we finally laid our eyes upon the Hakuba mountains, the sky had turn purple and pink, lights from some of the resorts lite up the skiers as they came down looking like little marching ants. We arrived in the town center and were met by our accommodation transfer, after a short five minute drive we had arrived at The Lab. As soon as we stepped into this place we knew that the next week would be unforgettable.
Scissor, Paper, Rock, Scissor, Paper, Rock, the great deciding game for the bottom bunks was over within seconds and we headed down to the bar to celebrate our arrival and calm our excitement. The staff at The Lab were very accommodating and made us feel right at home. Through out the week staying here we met new friends from all over the planet and created memories that will last a lifetime.
A little bit about Hakuba
- Hakuba is located just outside of Nagano city, which you may remember from the 1998 winter Olympics. Hakuba is home to 10 ski resorts which have terrain for beginners and all the way through to expert level.
- Two things that are a must if you travel to Hakuba. A guided backcountry ski tour and an Onsen. If you can do both of these in the one day in this order you will probably ask the question of why the hell haven't I done this before.
- I will state that if you are thinking of skiing back country, make sure you choose a company with certified guides and loads of experience.
When we seen the forecast for snow we decided to book a day Skiing with Steve Lees. Steve is an Australian alpine skiing legend, competing at three winter Olympics and has worked as a stunt man for a Jackie Chan and James Bond movies. The day started off cold and snow had fallen all through the night. We were picked up and driven to Tsugaike ski resort not to far from the town center, on the way we stopped to collect snacks and water which is vital for a full days skiing. Once we arrived at the resort we made our way to the top of the resort in the gondola. At the top we were introduced to our second guide Mark Donaldson, a down to earth guy who not only shreds the mountains but was also happy to share his knowledge of the Japanese mountains with us. At this point we were taught how to use slit-boards and the importance of avalanche safety. After a short debrief we were away.
The snow was falling but as we made our way higher the snow clouds rolled off into the distance leaving us with blue skies. The group was on a high and we hadn't even had a run yet, just making our way through the big snow covered pine tree was enough to send us into an excited state. Almost an hour in and we had reached the top of the ridge, the view on either side was incredible. The package we had purchased for the day was called "earn your turns" and this was nothing short of the truth, it made every run that much more satisfying and rewarding. That day we manage to fit three runs in and one of them would have to be the best run of my life. We returned to Tsugaike that afternoon and shared a few beers and stories of each other's runs, we were completely satisfied until someone mentioned an Onsen!
Onsen's are a Japanese hot spring, they are very common around the alpine areas but can also be found in cities and country sides. Onsen's can be both indoor and outdoor. The interesting thing about an Onsen is that you have to bath naked! Before entering you sit down on a tiny seat and wash your entire body with soaps, shampoos and conditioners provided. If your not completely comfortable being naked in front of your friends well too bad, you'll get use to it. Japanese say that being naked in these situations can break down barriers and can help to get to know someone better in these relaxed environments.
After a week in Hakuba it was time to move on and experience another side of Japan. Three trains rides later and we had arrived in Kyoto. Here we spent the next couple of days visiting temples, partaking in tea ceremonies and tasting Japanese cuisine. Jumping on the bus to visit a temple I had the idea we would head off into the country side, but a handful of these temples are right among the city and are quiet easy to get to. In saying that, the temples can get crowded so you might be better off going to the ones on the outskirts of the city and getting there early wouldn't hurt either.
There was one last place to tick off... TOKYO. We jumped on the bullet train and were there in just three hours, that's 450kms in three hours! After wrestling with the crowds of the streets we eventually found our Airbnb accommodation. It was a shoebox of an apartment, no bedrooms just a kitchen that extended into a lounge room where folded beds sat. Off this tiny space was a small toilet and a shower. The novelty of this Tokyo apartment was hilarious.
It was late afternoon so we headed out to check the local area, after a few hours we were almost back at our apartment when we stumbled across The Golden Gai, a series of laneways that hold tiny little restaurants and bars, fitting only six to eight people on average. I couldn't believe it, it was like stepping back in time. For the next two nights we made our way up and down these alleyways and popped our heads into each bar seeing which one was fitting for us. Some would be full, some would only accept Japanese, others would billow full of cigarette smoke. The Golden Gai seemed to have an atmosphere even when you weren't in a bar or restaurant. If your heading to Tokyo this place is a must.
Hours later on our last night in Tokyo we grabbed a taxi and headed to the Shibuya province to find a bar by the name of JBS. Our taxi driver didn't really seem to know where it was but he happened to drop us off just outside the front door. Not knowing much about the place I later found out that JBS stands for Jazz, Blues and Soul. Owner Kobayashi-san has a whopping collection of over 10,000 records and is an awesome host. I sat at the bar amazed at his tidy alphabetical arrangement of records but what he did next amazed me more. I requested John Lee Hooker album and straight away he walk from around the bar headed in a particular area, then within an area of 1 to 3 albums he pulled out a John Lee Hooker record. This might not seem very amazing but within 10,000 records this blew me away.
The next day on the way to the airport I really wished that I had more time to explore this culturally unique country, but all good thing must come to an end and I now know that I will definitely return again.
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