Japanese Snow: Japan Rail Travel in Winter

We arrive to Osaka’s Kansai airport at night-time, when I find myself somewhat mesmerized by the city, as I follow the lights of buildings and stairwells in search of a bulb out-of-place, or off colour. But everything is exact, as it should be, with matching tones and brightness, and everything is lined rigid in perfect symmetry. There’s barely a flicker of imperfection in the city, where even the bumps and blemishes, the wear and tear, look purposely placed. Japan does seem almost unreal at times, more like a model than real life, and it is these aesthetics which I love about travelling here as it just feels so calm, and soothing, almost hypnotic at times, to look at. So we continue to the JR Tennoji Station to find ourselves on the doorstep of the Abeno Harukas building, the tallest building not only in Osaka, but all of Japan. And this is where our ten-day journey would begin with a two-night stay in the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel. We arrive to the 19th-floor lobby, which feels more like a futuristic sci-fi skyport, than urban city lodgings, before being rocketed, in an elevator, to our 53rd-floor guestroom suite, which shares similar views to that of the 60th-floor observation deck, which is a famous viewpoint attraction in the city. This would probably be Osaka’s equivalent to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, known from the movie ‘Lost in Translation’, and it shares that same feeling of a void in transit, the state of disconnection and calm before our descent into the weird and alien world below. (Full Hotel Review here).


The Rail Travel Essentials

Before setting out we had already organised our essentials for rail travel, which I detailed in a post earlier as here. In short, the three essentials are the Japan Rail (JR) Pass, which saves silly money on train tickets among other perks, a Pocket Wifi Buddy, which keeps your devices connected throughout, and Hyperdia Route Planner, to bring together itineraries and train schedules when on the move. We have also booked every hotel in advance, with free cancellation, through Booking.com, which gives us flexibility along the way. And this is essential, as the travels to come are jam-packed, where just one slip up would likely have the entire itinerary topple to the ground. Which we did learn from trial and error on past travels where we covered close to 10,000 km on the JR Pass during spring in Japan, a distance equivalent to one-quarter of the circumference of the world. So we are well organised this time around and, before arriving to Kansai Airport, we have our entire schedule set using the Hyperdia route planner, and it’s saved to all our devices. We have also pre-purchased our JR passes, through http://www.japan-rail-pass.co.uk/, for collection at the JR offices on arrival in Japan. So this is what we do on arrival at Kansai Airport, as well as reserving every train ticket for the journey to come. Finally, for the pocket wifi, we have organised through https://japanwifibuddy.com/ to collect the device at our hotel lobby, where we are handed the package on arrival at check-in, along with a return address envelope so we only need to drop it in a post box on the last day that we leave. So, on the first night of our arrival, we are already set for the journey to come.

Eat ’til You Drop in Osaka

But, instead of jumping straight onto the rails, we first settle and get our feet on the ground in Osaka, which would be our base for travel for the coming weeks. The city is also further south than other entry destinations, with little chance of snow or travel delays, so it does help settle our nerves before starting out. And this is necessary given the intensity of travels to come. But I have other intentions for Osaka and it was one, of only two places, which I highlighted a return to, during our previous visit to Japan. The other was Shinjuku, Tokyo, although this looks unlikely on this journey. Anyway, we would arrive, and leave, from Osaka’s Kansai Airport, and on the first day we are quick out to pick-up from where we last left off. And this is at the Dōtonbori Canal area, and Ebisu Bridge, famous for its iconic Glico Man billboard, among lots of other things. It is an area, not just visually fascinating, with its buzzing arcades, flashing barges, and towering neon billboards, but it is also a mecca for eating in the city. And we really have few other plans for Osaka other than the food, as Osaka is often stigmatized for its eating, where there’s a saying about locals here in “Osaka wa kuidaore” which means “Osaka people eat ’til they drop”. So we are quick out to join them, and there will be full posts on eating to come, but to give a quick glimpse, there was ramen at Ichiran Ramen, some fantastic okonomiyaki overlooking the canal, and of course lots of tacoyaki octopus balls, which are a hugely popular street food in Japan, which originate from here in Osaka. Anyway we otherwise do very little than eat and enjoy our brief window of relaxation with hotel views over Osaka.


The Start of Spring (Setsubun Festival)

We did plan on celebrating the Setsubun festival when here, which marks the start of spring in Japan, but seeing the crowds at temples through local TV, we ultimately decide against it. And the fun celebrations do appear to be at the schools anyway, where teachers dress as demons to scare the absolute shit out of their kids and, in return, the kids are meant to throw soybeans, or “fortune beans”, at the demons, to drive them away. Instead most them just scream, and cry and run to their laughing parents in terror. It does look like great fun. But instead we celebrate indoors, as most people do, with the traditional tossing of beans at “oni” demons. Traditionally one member of the family would wear an oni demon mask, and have the rest throw beans at them. But not having any demon masks we make do instead by throwing beans at cartons of demon sake bought from the nearby Familymart. We would then throw beans out of the door while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!”, which means “Demons out! Luck in!”, before slamming the door closed again. This is meant to purify the home, or hotel room in our case, by driving away the evil spirits. I then eat an uncut sushi roll, or “lucky direction roll” as it’s known, while in silence, and facing north by northwest, which is this year’s lucky compass direction, obviously. This custom actually originates from Osaka and it shows as it’s really not easy to eat the entire thing following a full day of eating. Finally I then eat the fortune beans, one for each year of my life, while chanting “Oni no medama buttsubuse!” meaning “Smash the demons’ eyeballs!” In short, this should hopefully grant us good luck for the journey to come.

An Early Warning

Spring may have arrived, but there is still very little sign of it, as much of Japan still feels thick in the middle of winter. And our plans for the coming week are more for these far-flung, mountainous and northern regions of Japan, including the north island of Hokkaido which hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival. We are only travelling on a seven-day JR Pass this time around although this still gives us access to all Japan Rail Lines, including superfast Shinkansen bullet trains throughout the country. Again Fanfan has set the entire itinerary where my job is merely to follow along and to carry the bags. A formula which worked very well last time, so why change it now. Again I would categorise these adventures as “extreme sightseeing” where we would travel ridiculous distances to photograph things, only to travel ridiculous distances back again. And, throughout the journey, punctuality would be utmost essential, as the first day quickly demonstrates why. So we would be starting out from Tennoji Station, travelling to Shin Osaka station at 07:20AM, but we only arrive to our hotel room at 07:08AM, after an unnecessarily leisurely breakfast. This gives us just 12 minutes to grab our bags, checkout from the hotel, and rush to the JR lines, which, miraculously, we do. But it isn’t until half way to Shin-Osaka where Fanfan realizes that her coats are still in the hotel wardrobe. So we have no choice but to go back for them, which is where our travel essentials come into play as we access the internet with our wifi buddy, to re-route using Hyperdia, and with the JR passes we more or less grab new tickets for free, and dump our old ones. As today’s destination, Shirakawa-Go, would have otherwise been long gone. But we do manage to salvage the day, only we leave Shin-Osaka two hours later than we originally planned, at 09:40AM.


First Snow at Shirakawa-Go

But there are a lot of changes to the day’s itinerary where, fortunately, there are a number of varying routes to reach Shirakawa-Go. However advance booking is necessary for the final bus on many of these routes (Book online here), and we had obviously just lost our reserved bus tickets from Kanazawa. So we instead travel via Takayama, where non-reserved bus options are available to Shirikawa-Go, although we rely more on luck in the end, given it is now peak season in these parts of Japan. So it wasn’t a complete disaster, losing only 3,400 Yen on the reserved tickets, and the misadventure did add to the excitement of the day. Anyway, we arrive to Shirakawa-go, a picturesque Unesco Village famous for its unique winter housing, at around 14:50PM, where our visit would inevitably be rushed. We are given just a two-hour window before our next bus leaves again, again pre-booked, which isn’t ideal for this attraction. Fortunately we have been before in spring (full post on Shairakawa-Go in spring) and are familiar with the layout and what we want to see. So we circle the town twice, do a quick cross on the rope suspension bridge, and rush to the viewpoint above for photography over the village. And we are leaving again by 16:50PM as we bus to Toyama, a quaint coastal town on the Sea of Japan. The sun has already set by the time we reach Toyama (18:15PM) and we do little more than check into our pre-booked business hotel and snack on chuhi’s and instant ramen bought from the nearest Seven Eleven. And reflect on the disaster of day one.


The Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani

We only really see Toyama in passing, with its cute trams and backdrop of snow-capped mountains, and after a somewhat odd hotel breakfast of niku-dango meatballs with something that resembles Japanese mac and cheese, we are early on the trains again at 07:32AM to Nagano. The backdrops are more wild and mountainous here, than the central routes, as we cross river valleys and snow-covered forests, and includes a short pass along the north-central coastline near Itioigawa. We have actually covered this route before, during our spring visit, but the scenery looks completely different now in the snow. It’s not long before we arrive to Nagano (08:18AM) which is our base for travel today, where we stuff our bags into lockers, and pick-up our day passes for the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park next door (3,200 Yen). This, along with entry fee, covers access to the various transport options to the park, and for the first route we go with the bus option to the park. This would drop us to the beginning of a 40 minute trek (Yumichi Trail) to the snow monkey onsen, which is something I didn’t look forward to, but found it to be a highlight of the day. The trek follows winding paths, through tall pine forests, as we cross the valleys of the Yokoyu-River, to finally reach the snow monkeys. Jigokudani in fact means “Hell’s Valley”, due to its harsh climate, and the steam of boiling hot spring waters dotted through the valley, and it reminds me somewhat of our visit to the 8 Hells of Beppu, in Oita. Apparently these snow monkeys are the most northern living primates, and they thrive here, as they appear to be pampered really, with little else to do than bask and bathing in their private onsen spas, as they’re fed on-site and have little else to do for usual survival. So, after poking around the park, we decide to take the train back to Nagano, which means first taking a bus to the Yudanaka train station from the nearby Kambayashi Onsen. It is more complicated and our bus also breaks down along the way, something I didn’t think happened in Japan, and we are switched to a new bus. Eventually we arrive to Yudanaka train station to follow a route passing snow spattered countryside and barren apple orchards before arriving again to Nagano at 15:17PM.


Takayama Old Town

We have time to kill in Nagano before our next departure (15:17) and we find some fantastic ramen opposite the station at a place called Misoya Ramen. We then grab our bags again from the station lockers before following the same route back, from Nagano to Toyama, before forwarding to our last destination of the day at 17:13PM to Takayama (arriving at 18:39PM). We are travelling a bit backwards here, but Takayama is a traditional, sleepy alpine city which is well worth the detour. In Takayama we spend the night in a hostel near Nakabashi Bridge, a popular tourists spot in Takayama’s old town area and on the Miyakawa River. And while I may have been rather negative about hostelling in the past in Japan, this experience was ten times better than any of our past. While we still need to leave our shoes at the entrance, and we are forced to make our own beds (which I’m now realizing is custom in Japanese hostels) we at least didn’t have a fire escape in our room… We are in a private room, as always, which is quiet and comfortable, with an en-suite bathroom. We also have bunk beds which are a welcome change as Fanfan doesn’t allow me to drink sake and sleep next to her otherwise. So I obviously went out and got loaded on sake before exploring the old town area at night. Takayama does look more beautiful the next morning, when we wake to our first snowfall of the journey, when the charming old houses of the town centre look like they’re straight from a picture book. We really don’t have much time to enjoy it however and after a stroll through the quaint back streets, and the morning market next to Takayama `Jinya, the former government outpost, we are back on the trains again, with a nine-hour journey ahead.


The Journey North

We actually had no idea that this itinerary was possible when arriving to Kansai Airport, and this is due to the journey north, to the island of Hokkaido, as train seats cannot be reserved from outside of Japan. And, given the coming week hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival, the busiest travel period of the year in Hokkaido, our chances of finding tickets seemed slim. Because of this I near danced from the JR offices when the guy handed over every single ticket needed for the week to come. It almost felt like a slight miracle. So we would start this long-haul north from Takayama, where the recent snowfall had left a magical blanket of snow on the surrounding forest landscapes. And the nine-hour journey ahead doesn’t seem as disagreeable as it sounds. But I almost prefer my time on the trains as it’s a bit like sightseeing, only from the comfort of your own chair, with snacks and alcohol. And it otherwise looks really cold and uncomfortable outside. The coming nine hours would be split into three separate journeys, the first from Takayama (11:00AM) to Toyama (12:29PM), then from Toyama (13:19PM) to Omiya (15:26PM), before the final jump to the north island, from Omiya (15:46PM) to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (19:50PM). Having made the most of our morning in Takayama we actually left breakfast to the 50 minute break at Toyama where, after some Hachiban Ramen, we stock up on beer, wine and train snacks for the long journey ahead. The start of the long-haul takes us first into the centre of Honshu Island, aka mainland Japan, where we first stop at Omiya, which is a major interchange station for the JR East line. From here it is just a few stops to Tokyo, but, for now, we will ignore the capital to continue north, straight up towards Hokkaido.

The Long Haul to Hokkaido

We have in fact covered the start of this route before, and we’ve spent the night in Sendai before, and travelled as far as Morioka on our very first Shinkansen ride in Japan. But anywhere above Morioka is unchartered territory. The landscape does change throughout, and we lose the snow as we travel into the central areas of Honshu, but the route is still relatively enjoyable, although the bottle of red wine does help. The snow does appear again after Sendai, but this is the around the same time as sunset, and we see very little in the last 2 hours in the north of Honshu. The next stretch then enters the Seikan Tunnel, the world’s longest undersea tunnel, which connects Japanese mainland, Honshu, to the northern island of Hokkaido. This is where we had the big question mark before arriving, having expected the seats to be filled through to Hokkaido, as there really are few other fast ways of getting there. So we were surprised to be the only passengers in the entire car and the entire train felt empty. Apparently people prefer to fly this route, as trains tend to be expensive, but this makes little different to us, as every JR route is included on the JR Pass. But it honestly isn’t a very exciting route, as it’s just continuous through a very long tunnel, and we don’t really notice entering it until the wifi cuts out and we’re left twiddling our thumbs. But it isn’t long until we re-emerge on the island of Hokkaido where we disembark and transfer trains at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto for the final short journey (20 mins) towards the main station of Hakodate (20 mins). It is freezing in the port city of Hakodate, as expected, but I am otherwise surprised at just how little snow there is. And while the backstreets and footpaths are still inches thick with compressed ice, there seems to have been very little snowfall in a long time. And again, other than a run for beers and instant ramen at the nearby Familymart, we do little more that night.


A Short Stop in Hakodate

Our hotel sits pretty much opposite the main station, and next door to the main station is Hakodate’s fresh fish market, so this is our first sight-seeing stop on the next morning. This is in fact the first fish market I’ve seen in Japan, despite their obvious obsession for fish, and the close-knit maze of nearby alleys is smaller and quieter than I expected.  Throughout there are morning barbecues, stalls with massive crabs, and lots of squid, which is apparently Hakodate’s “City Fish”. There’s even an annual festival here to celebrate the squid, called the Hakodate Port Festival, where people parade through the main streets while doing the squid-dance, obviously. But we are more or less passing through this morning, as we continue to the nearby tram station on our way to the city’s main attractions at Goryōkaku. Here there is a huge tower, called Goryōkaku Tower, which stands over the old star-shaped fort which was originally shaped to allow for more guns turrets, and reduced blind spots around its walls. There are significant historical stuffs attached to the site but I’ll leave these to a later post. So the trams are easier to use than expected, as they more or less circle the city in each direction, the red line going one way, and the blue line the opposite. They also work similar to local buses, where you climb on at the middle door, grab a ticket, and then pay and leave from the front. It takes around 10 minutes to the reach the Goryōkaku Koen Mae station (230 Yen one way) and it’s a further 5 minute walk to the base of the tower, though streets covered in crusts of thick ice. And after a quick tour of the fortress area we take the lift to the observation deck of Goryōkaku Tower (opens at 09:00AM, 840 Yen) where we find panoramic views over the star fort and surrounding mountains of Hakodate. Apparently you can see across to Honshu Island and the mainland on a good day. But we don’t stay long, and are soon back on the trams, and then the trains, as we make are way towards the city to Sapporo, for the annual snow festival.


The Otaru Light Festival

We leave Hakodate station at 10:48AM as we follow the east coast of Hokkaido towards Sapporo which passes oceans and seagulls on one side, and hills covered in snow on the opposite. The plan for the day is to first travel to our hotel near Chitose Station, via a transfer at Minami Chitose Station (14:09PM), but this was soon scrapped after we arrived 37 minutes late to the station. Similar delays are almost unheard of elsewhere in Japan, given ridiculous punctuality of trains, but snow is one of the very few things which can hinder the trains here. So instead of getting off at Minami Chitose Station we decide to continue on the same line, hoping no-one has reserved the seats we are in, as we aim torwards Sapporo. We may have got lucky here, but we are still carrying our bags, so we have to squash them into a locker when we arrive to Sapporo Station. We then board another train to Otaru, given the earliest local train possible, as again we are winging things. This train takes around 40 minutes past some of the most fascinating window views where the tracks hug the surrounding coastlines, and waves crash against the rocks and shore covered in snow. But the snow is just ridiculously thick now, and it is beyond me how people can actually live in these conditions, as I’d likely struggle to even get out of my house. So Otaru is another Port City, northwest of Sapporo, which hosts the “Otaru Snow Light Path Festival” to coincide with the Sapporo Snow Festival. It takes place every evening between 17:00PM to 21:00PM, and we arrive not long after 16:00PM, so the timing worked well. From the station it is a straight walk down to meet Otaru Canal, which is central to the festival, and is illuminated with lights and snow sculptures. But there’s plenty to of interest along the way, as we pass other nooks and side streets, which have joined the celebrations by carving light sculptures in the near-two-meter-tall walls of snow, which have piled by the sides of the road. We then stay for sunset in Otaru, before boarding the trains back to Sapporo station.


The Sapporo Snow Festival

The main site of the Snow Festival is found one short subway stop from Sapporo station, at Odori Park (Ōdōri Station), which means it’s also easily reached by foot. So we open up Google maps and go it alone. We set the route for Sapporo TV Tower, which stands at the east end of Odori Park, and then follow a straight line down from Sapporo Station until we arrive to Odori Park, at the “Park Air Jumping Platform”, a snowboarding slope with air shows from snowboarders and freestyle skiers. From here we then take a left towards the TV tower which offers some fantastic views from the observatory deck above. So we wait in line for the attraction (which opens daily, between 08:30 – 22:30, and costs 720 Yen) and wait for around forty minutes to take the elevator to the top. There’s really not much excitement other than the views, which is what we expected, so we are soon back down again. Ideally we would now be straight out to explore the park, but we hadn’t eaten anything but snack food that day, also sake to keep warm, so we grab some curry ramen at the connecting mall on the basement floors. Snow looks to be beating down now as snow-covered commuters rush in from the tunnel stairs above. So we finally get to explore the main site of the snow festival, and there will be a full post to come, so this is more of a quick summary of what’s going on. It’s more or less just one full circle around the park, with a path on each side, covered in about half a foot of compressed ice. Throughout are food stalls, and heated tents to escape the weather but we really don’t have the time. And the snow is fun. As expected there are lots of ice sculptures, 300 plus, and the highlights would definitely be the light and sound shows which include otaku favourites such as Final Fantasy VII and Star Wars. Some of the bigger sculptures also include the Kofukuji Temple of Nara, the Arc de Triomphe of Paris, and a Giant Cup Noodle, obviously. There are then seemingly countless smaller sculptures dotted throughout and they tend to follow the past year’s phenomenons in anime and pop culture, like Pokemon Go, and PPAP, amongst other global figures, like Trump.  So we cover the entire park, from top to bottom, before following the same route back to the station. We then grab our bags again from the locker, and forward to Chitose where our hotel is for the night.


Sapporo at Day

We originally struggled to find affordable, or even available, hotels in Sapporo for the Snow Festival, even when booking months in advance, so we are forced to stay 40 minutes down the line at Chitose, a city probably best known for its International Airport. It’s not an ideal base but it’s a whole lot cheaper and I really quite like seeing these lesser visited places just because they’re more obscure and local, and give an insight into the more workaday lives of Japanese folk, away from the big cities and tourist spots. So the next morning we wake, in our 6th floor room, to look over a somewhat suburban neighbourhood piled high with snow. It’s a peaceful and quiet area where other than a brave jogger, and a delivery van passing the closed shutters of a pachinko parlour opposite, the streets are empty. It’s still early when we leave the hotel and night lights still cast light over the houses and garages and snow. It’s quite a serene and surreal scene outside. With weather we are now constantly in the minuses, but temperatures do feel worse than they are, as we’re surrounded by big blocks of ice piled at roadsides, and the wind blows icy air between their corridors. Anyway we return again to Sapporo to stuff our bags again into lockers before our second day at the Snow Festival. This time we start at the second site at the crossing of Susukino, an area otherwise better known as a red light district, which is just a couple stops down on the subway at Susukino Station. We do take the train this time to arrive to the “Susukino Ice World 2017” where the entire distance of the central island of the street has been decorated with ice carvings. Taxis and traffic continue to pass on both sides, yet it’s still easy to walk between, and take photographs next to, the sculptures, although it’s probably not the best place to host a tourist attraction. Otherwise there’s not much more to do, so we decide to walk back towards the main Sapporo station, and pass through the main site of Odori Park where we again complete a full circle. Sapporo is an easy city centre to navigate, with the help of Google Maps.


Tokyo Lights

We don’t spend even 24 hours in Sapporo, the main purpose for this visit to Japan, yet I feel we covered what we set out to, or at least when it comes to the Snow Festival. While there is one further festival site, at Tsudome as it’s called, we had substituted this with our visit to the Otaru Light Festival. Otherwise it doesn’t feel necessary to spend more time at the snow festival, and there’s a whole lot more of Japan still to cover. So we are back again on the long-haul, crossing over to the mainland, as we follow two long stretches to the capital of Tokyo. The first stretch leaves from Sapporo (10:44AM) to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (14:10PM) before crossing the sea from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (14:44) straight through to Tokyo (19:04PM). For trains snacks we bring three Sapporo beers, original, classic and gold, along with a bag of Hokkaido egg tarts. Also there’s a whole load of other generic travel snacks, like Lawson’s Egg Sandwiches, Pocky Almond Crush, yakiniku rice bowls, and sushi rolls. And time does pass quickly on this journey, possibly helped by the beers, and soon we are coming close to Tokyo. Here we actually manage to save some time when we disembark at Ueno Station, where we had originally planned on travelling back to, as tonight’s hotel is booked nearby. And these added 20 minutes are very much-needed, as the night ahead is ridiculously rushed, as we hop between JR lines and various metros to follow the quickest route, using Hyperdia again, to reach Shiodome station, on opposite side of the city. We are here for the “Caretta Shiodome Winter Illumination” which hosts a winter light garden and an illumination show which takes place every 20 minutes. And we arrive just in time to watch from the overhead skywalks above.


Tokyo Suburbs

This visit to Tokyo was always guaranteed to be a short one, but we have covered a fair bit before, including our favourite themed cafes here. And there’s no snow in Tokyo anyway, as it’s not known as a winter destination in Japan, so it’s just not overly important on this visit. So instead we have plans to meet our good friend Jar who lives out in the local hipster neighbourhood of Shimo-Katazawa, which is only one stop down from Shibuya on the metro lines. And again we are hopping between JR and subway lines to arrive for 09:06PM, which is just six minutes out from our predicted time. Here Jar shows us a more suburban life, and while the area is still ridiculously central to Tokyo, it is low-rise and feels very much like we’re out of town. So we arrive to Shimokita (Setagaya district) and the pedestrianized streets are already relatively quiet at this time. We do a quick tour of the local neighborhood, which is mostly independent shops, games arcades and youth entertainment, before calling in for some Hiroshima Omonomiyaki, which is pretty much normal onomiyaki only cut with udon noodles. Great food. Jar then tells us about one of the Japanese guys he lives with, who works incredibly long hours, and lives in a tiny room, only to spend his money to travel around the world. He’s travelled to half the countries in the world, or something, but never even sharer photos or stories with others. I really respect the oddness of Japanese people. Anyway, we call it a night soon after, and travel back to our hotel in Ueno, as the next morning we would wake again early to travel back into the Shibuya area. This time it’s for Fanfan’s Duty Free shopping and, due to the sleet and rain outside in Tokyo, I let her go it alone. So instead of stuffing our bags into lockers again I volunteer to wait with them at the station. This seemed like a smart idea at the time, but, as the departure time to Minakami, our next destination, creeps closer, I can’t help but panic. Until now it has always been me who rushed the schedule and made sure we boarded the trains on time. While Fanfan’s been a little bit Meh! And now we have a rather expensive hotel stay on the line, so I can’t help but panic. Finally, when she does turn up, we are forced to rush to the first train to Tokyo Station, the 8th busiest train station in the entire world, which is where our departure leaves for Minakami. And we arrive with just 10 minutes to find area, platform and train for departure. After a reckless dash, with all our bags through Tokyo station, we eventually arrive, out-of-breath and dry heaving, to the train, with mere minutes to spare.


A Winter’s Dream at Takaragawa Onsen

Having travelled far and wide in Japan, we end up finding our winter wonderland just two hours out from Tokyo, at Takaragawa Onsen, in Minakami-machi, Gunman province. And it was somewhat surreal considering we barely saw a sign of snow ten minutes before arriving to Jomo-Goken station. But then we emerge from the final tunnel to a winter wonderland. So the one experience I’ve always said is not to be missed in Japan, is the traditional ryokan experience, which is more than a just hotel stay, but a package of fascinating cultural experiences, all wrapped in one. This will normally include a Japanese style hotel suite, onsen hot spring baths, traditional kimono dress, and, more than not, a multi-course kaiseki dinner. And while they are obviously more expensive than the basic hotels, they are also well worth the money. So we make the most of this visit to Takaragawa Onsen with a stay at the on site ryokan which, for me, is the Japanese dream. Because, other than on-screen, I never really thought places like this exist in real life (our full review here). Our traditional Japanese suite overlooks the passing Takaragawa River, where the suspension rope bridge marks the start of the forest walk to the surrounding hot spring onsens, which are dotted through the nearby forests and connect neatly to the passing river. The outdoor onsens, or roten-buro as they are known, are natural onsens sourcing hot spring waters from the surrounding grounds and mountains. And we more or less have 24 hours to enjoy them given they are open right through the night. We therefore call in during the less busy hours, when no one else is around, so we can photograph without any problems.


The Ryokan Retreat

This experience did in fact trump our previous ryokan stay at the foot of, and overlooking Mount Fuji, but much is still similar where we are given a choice of yukata, a casual Japanese kimono, for our stay. The traditional Japanese rooms are designed with tatami mat flooring, heated from below, and are just ridiculously cosy and hard to leave. For outside we are also given suitable tanzen overcoats, which more or less wrap over the inner yukata, and they keep us surprisingly warm, given the obvious extreme conditions outside. In the evening we are served a traditional kaiseki feast in the traditional bamboo and tatami restaurants with ingredients sourced from surrounding forests, including wild mushrooms, freshwater fish, and possibly bear. Bear soup is one of the more adventurous dining options on the menu, although I’m not really certain if it made up any part of our set meal. As with pretty much every kaiseki meal, we were served all sorts of weirdness, and this is part of the fun in it. But to name the more obvious, there was sashimi, tempura, a table barbecue, and a fantastic sukiyaki hot-pot. However we had already smuggled wine to the room earlier, before our first onsen dip, so we otherwise skip on the hot sakes and hi-ball menu. On returning to the room we then find the layout has changed, following a Japanese turn-down service, and two futon beds have been spread across the tatami flooring. So overall it was a fascinating and dreamlike experience, and I could happily live and die there, but for now we must make do with only the one night. We leave again the following morning, but I do feel like the journey is now very close to complete. At least this experience was never going to be topped.


Old School Osaka

The next morning, after a last dip in the onsen baths, we take the free shuttle bus back to Jomo-Goken Station to start our return journey back to Osaka. As today is the last of our day of our JR Pass. So we leave Jomo-Goken Station at 10:40AM to arrive first to Tokyo at exactly midday. We then board the Tokaido Shinkansen which travels direct to Osaka. This route actually passes Mount Fuji where it’s seen on the right side of the train, about 40-45 minutes out from Tokyo, near Shin-Fuji Station. And we do manage to see its groin, and below, but that’s about it, as the rest of the Fujisan is covered in cloud. But we have seen the mountain, in all its beauty before, with our ryokan stay at Lake Kawaguchiko. So it’s not a great loss. But I really didn’t expect to see snow after leaving the tunnel from Minakami so was surprised to see short delays on the line due to snow on the tracks south. And there was even snowfall as we passed Kyoto, which is barely an hour out from Osaka. So there still is the chance of seeing snow in southern parts of Japan, although these chances are relatively slim. So we arrive to Shin-Osaka Station at 14:20PM with mixed feelings where, again we could easily have kept travelling with more time on the JR Pass, but I was also relieved, and somewhat surprised, that the entire itinerary had gone to plan. But the train journey is now over and we have two days to finally relax, and eat, in Osaka and we start that night with katsu curries and more ominomiyaki in the Shinsekai area. This is a somewhat kitsch and retro part of the city, known for its sketchy backstreets, and the Tsutenkaku Tower which presides over the background. It is just so visually fascinating to look at.


Osaka Kimono Hire

So we do have one full day to fill as our flight out of Kansai Airport doesn’t leave until after midnight. And Fanfan decides to spend this day, all dressed up in traditional Japanese kimonos, as we go to tour Osaka. Part of our motivation for this was to get rid of our bags for the day, having checked out of our hotel, and we store them safely in the shop as we head out into Osaka to explore. So this experience is not new to Fanfan, who has done similar in Kyoto, but I wasn’t overly eager myself. In fact the last time I dressed in costume was Halloween when I was 10. But Fanfan does convince me to join along, although it is somewhat simpler and cheaper for the men’s kimono. And I win a whole bunch of husband points in doing so. Anyway my kimono was rather basic in comparison to the extravagance of Fanfan’s which includes a kanzashi hair piece, and elaborate obi belt around her waist. We then start out from the Kimono Rental Shop (Wargo), found near Shinsaibashi Subway Station (full details here), which connects neatly through in a straight line of arcades to the Dotonbori Canal area and Glico Man bridge. And this is where we will start and end the day. For the main photoshoot we decide on a lesser known temple, called Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, where we use a tripod, and camera timer, to snap photos of the two us together. As the temple is relatively void of tourists and anywhere busier would have been a disaster for the couple shots.  So it worked well before we continue to Osaka Castle which is where the weather becomes rather nippy. And against all odd the wind picks up and snow starts falling from the skies just when we arrive to the least sheltered areas at the top of the castle mound. This wasn’t ideal given what we were wearing. So we hurry back down again and to the arcades of Dotonburi where we find ourselves doing normal things, like shopping in the duty-free shops, and eating, and we spend a good thirty minutes queuing for more ramen at Ichiran Dotonbori. It’s really good ramen. Admittedly we do look a bit out-of-place in the city and we almost became the tourist attraction in ourselves.


Last Minute Musings

It’s just before sunset when we return our kimonos to the kimono shop and we start towards the trains again with our luggage. Along the way I make one last raid at a nearby Family Mart in my quest to drinking every alcoholic beverage possible, although I have been overlapping with many for a long time. We then pop our wifi buddy into the return address envelope and post it in a mailbox next to the terminal at Kansai airport. And now finally have time to reflect. Because, before now, we had barely any time to think of anything but what we’re doing next as we continuously rushed from place to place, and one experience to the next. So one thing I remember before setting out was my worry at how this journey would not live up to the last. Which is normal to me where I find that destinations are always more exciting on the first visit, when everything is new and unknown. Our second visit to China, for example, looked ten times better on paper, but the overall experience turned out to be a let-down compared to the first visit. But I find that Japan is just so bizarre, and mind-boggling at times, that there will always be something new at every turn. And I honestly can’t even compare the two different journeys, as both felt very different to one another. And much of this is to do with the seasons, something we don’t have in Thailand, and of the completely new scenery in the snow. The jump to Hokkaido as well was like a whole different world, and everything in between was just completely different to how we had seem it in spring. And now I am already thinking of Japan in autumn, and summer maybe? We still haven’t been to Okinawa yet. So already we are planning our next visit to the country, which is something I’ve not done, other than our last visit to Japan. A country I don’t think I’ll ever get bored with.

Japanese Snow: Free eBook

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2 thoughts on “Japanese Snow: Japan Rail Travel in Winter”

  1. Have traveled to Japan on numerous occasion, yet not in such a snow effect period. Japan is a great place to visit and love the people around. Simply amazing.

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