Destinations Magazine

Japanese Snow: Japan Rail Travel in Winter

By Allanmwilson @BoutiqueBangkok

Japan seems almost unreal at times, more like a model, as it’s just too neat and orderly to be real life. And, arriving to Osaka’s Kansai airport in the dark, I find myself mesmerized by the city, as I follow lights of the buildings and stairwells in search of a bulb out of place, or off colour at least. But everything is exact, as it should be, matching in tone and brightness, and lined 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. And this is what I love about Japan as aesthetically it just feels calming, soothing, almost hypnotic just to look at. So we continue to the JR Tennoji Station where we find ourselves on the doorstep of the Abeno Harukas building, the tallest building not only in Osaka, but all of Japan. Our ten day journey would start with two nights in the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel where we arrive to the 19th floor lobby, which feels more like a futuristic sci-fi skyport, than any urban city lodgings. We are then rocketed, in an elevator, to our 53rd floor guestroom suite, which shares similar views to the 60th floor observation deck, which is a famous viewpoint attraction in Osaka. This would be Osaka’s equivalent to the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, known from the movie ‘Lost in Translation’, and it ticked off the void in transit experience from the tick-list, that state of disconnection and calm before our descent into the weird and alien world below. (Full review here).

Guestroom Sunset Views, Marriott Miyako Hotel, Best Views of Osaka
Hotel Lobby Views, Marriott Miyako Hotel, Best Views of Osaka
Allan Wilson, Marriott Miyako Hotel, Best Views of Osaka

The Rail Travel Essentials

We have already organised our essentials for rail travel, before setting out, which I detailed in an earlier post here. In short, these three essentials are the Japan Rail (JR) Pass, which saves silly money on rail travel, a Pocket Wifi Buddy, which keeps our devices connected throughout, and Hyperdia Route Planner, to bring together itineraries and train schedules for the coming week. Because travels to come will be jam packed, as always, and just one slip up could have our entire itinerary topple like dominoes. And we did learn this from trial and error on our previous Spring travels in Japan, where we covered close to 10,000 km on Japan’s rails, the equivalent to one quarter of the circumference of the world. So we are well organised before arriving to Kansai Airport with an entire schedule set using Hyperdia route planner, and this is saved to all our devices. We have also pre-purchased JR passes, for collection at the nearest JR office, which we do first thing on arriving to Kansai Airport. We also reserve train seats and collect tickets for the entire journey ahead. Lastly, we organised the collection of our Pocket Wifi Buddy at the hotel lobby, and we are handed the package during check-in at reception. The Wifi Buddy comes along with a return address envelope, allowing us to just pop it in the post on the final day of our travels. And we are already set for the journey to come.

Kansai Airport JR Office,JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Return Mail Envelope, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Japan Wifi Buddy, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

Eat ’til You Drop in Osaka

It was important to get our feet on the ground first, so we chose Osaka as our base, given the city is further south, and has little chance of flight or travel delays due to the snow or weather. Which helps settle our nerves slightly given the intensity of the travels to come. But there are other motives in our visit to Osaka, where it was one of only two places I highlighted a return to on our previous visit to Japan. The other was Shinjuku, in Tokyo, which now looks unlikely. But we do go one better this time by basing ourselves in Osaka, as we arrive and leave from Osaka’s Kansai Airport and we more or less pickup from where we began at the Dōtonbori Canal and Ebisu Bridge area famous for its iconic Glico Man billboard, among other things. Because the area is just visually fascinating, with flashing barges, buzzing arcades, and towering neon billboards of food and more food. As Osaka is often stigmatized for its eating, and glutton, where there’s a saying in Japan “Osaka wa kuidaore” which means “Osaka people eat ’til they drop”. And we have few further plans for our first days, other than to join them. There will be full posts on our eating to come, but to give an idea of what we covered, there was ramen at Ichiran Ramen, some fantastic okonomiyaki, and, of course, lots of tacoyaki octopus balls, a hugely popular street food in Japan, which originate from Osaka. We otherwise do very little else in Osaka.

Dōtonbori Canal, Marriott Miyako Hotel, Best Views of Osaka
Okonomiyaki in Osaka,JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Ichiran Ramen Dotonbori, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

The Start of Spring (Setsubun Festival)

We did plan on celebrating the Setsubun festival, which marks the start of spring in Japan, but seeing the crowds at temples, through local TV, we decide against it. Plus the fun celebrations appear to be at schools anyway, where teachers dress as demons to scare the absolute shit out of their kids. In return the kids should throw soybeans, or “fortune beans”, at the demons, to drive them away, but most just cry, and scream, and run in terror. It looks like great fun. But we instead celebrate indoors, as most people do, with the traditional tossing of beans at “oni” demons. Normally someone would wear an oni demon mask for this, and have beans thrown at them, but we make do by throwing them at demon sake cartons (Nihon Sakari Oni Koroshi). We then throw beans out the door while shouting “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” meaning “Demons out! Luck in!” before slamming it closed again. This apparently purifies the home, or hotel room in our case, by driving away evil spirits. Next is a custom which originates from Osaka where we eat an uncut maki sushi roll, or “lucky direction roll”, while in silence, facing north by northwest, which is this year’s lucky compass direction, obviously. It’s really not easy following our day of glutton. To end it all I then eat fortune beans, one for each year of my life, while chanting “Oni no medama buttsubuse!” meaning “Smash the demons’ eyeballs!” So hopefully this will grant us luck for the journey to come.

Guestroom Suites Views, Marriott Miyako Hotel, Best Views of Osaka
Setsubun Rice Roll, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Celebrating Setsabun, Marriott Miyako Hotel, Best Views of Osaka

An Early Warning

Spring may have arrived, but much of Japan is still in winter, and our plans are for these more far-flung and northern regions in the coming week. We will be travelling on a shorter seven day JR Pass giving us access to all Japan Rail Lines, including superfast Shinkansen bullet trains, and routes to the northern island of Hokkaido. Which is where our sights are set. Again Fanfan has set the itinerary and my job is merely to follow along with the bags. A formula which worked well last time, so why change now. So it would again be “extreme sightseeing” where we travel ridiculous distances to photograph things, only to travel ridiculous distances back again. So punctuality will be essential to the end, and the first day quickly highlights why. When leaving Tennoji Station, for Shin Osaka station at 07:20, we only arrive to the hotel room at 07:08, after an all too leisurely breakfast. This gave us just 12 minutes to grab our bags, checkout from the hotel, and rush to the JR lines, which are fortunately on our doorstep. Miraculously, we do this, but it isn’t until half way to Shin-Osaka when Fanfan realizes her coats were left back in the guestroom wardrobe. So we have to go back for them. This is when our travel essentials come into play as we access internet with our wifi buddy, we re-route using Hyperdia, and the JR passes let us dump and reserve new tickets to get there. And, without them, our next destination, Takayama, would have been long gone. But we do salvage the day, although, instead of leaving Shin-Osaka at 07:40 we don’t start out until 09:40. So the day ahead changes a fair bit.


Fanfan Wilson, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Allan Wilson, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Takayama Station, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

First Snow at Shirakawa-Go

Fortunately there are a number of routes to reach our next destination, Shirakawa-Go, although advance booking is needed for many of them. We had already reserved bus tickets leaving Kanazawa, so lost around 3,400 Yen on these, and we instead travel via Takayama, where there are non-reserved bus options to Shirikawa-Go. But things were a bit touch-and-go, and we were relying on luck in the end, as these are peak periods in these parts of Japan. So it wasn’t a complete disaster and it added to the excitement of the day. Anyway, Shirakawa-go is a famous Unesco Village, famous for its unique winter housing, which we did visit during spring before (full post on Shairakawa-Go in spring) and felt it was due a winter return. But our visit is inevitably rushed, with just a two hour window before our pre-booked bus leaves again. We are familiar with the layout at least so this gives us enough time to circle the town twice, rush across the rope suspension bridge, and do a quick run up to the viewpoint for photography from above. And it was more of a photography session before a short stint of fun in the snow before leaving at 16:50, as our bus forwards on to Toyama, a coastal town on the Sea of Japan. We arrive to Toyama after sunset (18:15) where we have pre-booked a business hotel and few further plans than to grab chuhi’s and instant ramen from the nearest Seven Eleven, and then reflect on the disaster of day one. So we only see Toyama in passing but what we see is worth a second visit with its trams and backdrop of snow-capped mountains, which we had otherwise missed in the darkness of the night before.

Shirakawago from Above,JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Entrance to Shirakawago, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Shirakawago in Snow,JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

The Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani

After a somewhat odd, but free hotel breakfast of niku-dango meatballs with something that resembles Japanese mac and cheese, we are early on the trains again at 07:32AM en route to from Toyama to Nagano. The views are a lot more scenic here than the central routes, as we pass over river valleys, and snow covered forests with wild mountain backdrops, and there’s even a short pass along the north-central coastline near Itioigawa. In fact we have covered this route before, during our spring visit, but the scenery just looks completely different in the snow. So it’s not long before we arrive to Nagano (08:18AM) which would be our base for travel today, as we stuff our bags into lockers and pick-up our day passes (3,200 Yen) next door for the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park. This, along with entry fee, covers access to the various transport options to the park and we go with the bus option for the first route. This would drop us to the beginning of a 40 minute trek (Yumichi Trail) to the snow monkey onsen. Something I hadn’t looked forward to but became a highlight of the day with its winding paths, through tall pine forests, over the valley of the Yokoyu-River which passes below. So the park, Jigokudani, means “Hell’s Valley” due to its harsh climate and the steam and boiling hot spring waters which are dotted along the valley. And it reminds me somewhat of our visit to the 8 Hells of Beppu). But these snow monkeys, which are the most northern living primates, thrive here, although they appear to spend most of their time basking and bathing in private onsen spas. They’re pampered really as they’re fed on-site and have little else to do for usual survival. So, for the route back, we decide this time to take the train, although this means first taking a bus, from the nearby Kambayashi Onsen, which takes us to the Yudanaka train station. Which, against all odds breaks down along the way. I didn’t think these things happen in Japan. So we switch to a new bus, before eventually arriving to the train station. We then pass snow spattered and barren countryside and apple orchards before arriving back to Nagano at 15:17PM.

Snow Monkey Onsen, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Snow Monkey Onsen, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Snow Forests, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

Takayama Old Town

We then have time to kill before our next departure from Nagano (15:17) so we search nearby to find some fantastic ramen opposite the station at a place called Misoya Ramen. Then, after grabbing our bags from storage, we follow the same route back from Nagano to Toyama (17:01 – 17:13), before forwarding to our last destination of the day in Takayama, arriving at 18:39PM. We are travelling a bit backwards here, but Takayama, a traditional and sleepy city in the heart of the Japanese Alps, is definitely worth the visit. And we do have a full morning to explore the next day, before our long haul to the north. So in Takayama we spend the night in a hostel near Nakabashi Bridge, which crosses the Miyakawa River in Takayama’s old town area. And while I have been rather negative about hostelling in the past, when travelling in Japan, this experience was ten times better than our past. While we do still need to leave shoes at the entrance, and 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 of course have a private room, which is quiet and comfortable, and have bunk beds which make a great change. Normally Fanfan wouldn’t allow me to drink sake and sleep next to her, so I went and got loaded at the nearest Familymart, before exploring the old town area at night. But Takayama does look more beautiful the next morning when we wake to our first snowfall of the journey and the charming old houses of the town centre look like they’re straight from a picture book. But we really don’t have long to enjoy it, and, after a romantic potter through quaint back streets and the morning market next to Takayama Jinya, the former government outpost, and we are back on the trains again, with a nine hour journey ahead.

Nakabashi Bridge Takayama, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Snowing in Takayama, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Takayama Old Town, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

The Journey North

We actually arrived to Japan not knowing whether our itinerary was in fact possible. And this was due to the journey north, to the island of Hokkaido, as seats are unable to be reserved in advance when outside of Japan. Given the coming week hosts the Sapporo Snow Festival, the busiest time for travel in Hokkaido, it just all seemed very unlikely. Therefore I was close to dancing from the JR offices at Kansai Airport, when the guy behind the counter handed over every ticket needed for the week to come. To me it felt like a slight miracle, and the guy is our maker of dreams. So we would start this long-haul journey from Takayama where the recent snowfalls have left a magical winter blanket on the surrounding forest landscapes. And I am almost looking forward to the nine hour journey ahead. In fact I almost prefer being on the trains, than not, as it’s a bit like sightseeing, only from the comfort of your own chair. I can have snacks, alcohol, and it’s just looks really cold and uncomfortable outside. The coming nine hours would be split into three separate journeys. The first is from Takayama (11:00AM) to Toyama (12:29PM), then from Toyama (13:19PM) to Omiya (15:26PM), and then from Omiya (15:46PM) to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (19:50PM). And, having made the most of our morning in Takayama this morning, we have a breakfast of Hachiban Ramen during the 50 minute break at Toyama. We also stock up here on wine and train snacks for the long journey ahead.

Takayama Station, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Views from Train. JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Train Views North, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

The Long Haul to Hokkaido

The route takes us back into the centre of Honshu Island, the mainland of Japan, first stopping at Omiya, the major interchange station for the JR East line. And just a few stops further would have brought us to Tokyo, but, for now, we bypass the capital to continue north, straight towards Hokkaido. We have covered this route before where we’ve spent the night in Sendai before, and made it as far as Morioka on our first ever Shinkansen journey. But from Morioka onwards we are in unchartered territory. We do lose the snow again in the central area but the route is still relatively enjoyable, with our bottle of wine. The snow does show again soon after Sendai, but the sunsets soon after, so we see very little of the last 2 hours of the journey. So this stretch was the big question mark before arriving, where we expected the seats to be filled up to Hokkaido, yet we are the only passengers in our entire car. Apparently people prefer to fly this route, because trains are expensive, although this is irrelevant when travelling on the JR Pass. Every JR journey is covered.   Anyway, we notice a whole load of tunnels, as our wifi keeps dropping intermittently before going down completely as we enter the Seikan Tunnel, the world’s longest undersea tunnel, connecting the Japanese mainland (Honshu) to the northern island of Hokkaido. We then alight at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto before transferring to local JR lines and continuing to the main station in the port city of Hakodate, which is Hokkaido’s third largest city. And it is freezing outside, as expected, but I am otherwise surprised at just how little snow there is. While backstreets and footpaths are still inches thick with compressed ice, there seems to have been little to no snowfall in a long time. And again, other than a run for beers and instant ramen at the nearby Familymart, we do little else that night.

Train to Hokkaido, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Hakodate Train, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Taxis in Hakodate, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

A Short Stop in Hakodate

Our hotel sits pretty much opposite the main station, and just next door, is Hakodate’s fresh fish market, our first sight-seeing stop the following morning. So the market fish market is intriguing as it is the first I’ve explored in Japan. It seems relatively small and humble with morning barbecues, massive crabs, and of course squid, which is Hakodate’s “city fish”. There’s even an annual festival here to celebrate squid, called Hakodate Port Festival, where a parade in the main streets do the squid-dance. But we are more or less passing through today as we continue to the nearby tram station as we navigate to the city’s main attraction of Goryōkaku Tower which has panoramic views of the city from its observation deck. The trams are easier to use than expected as they more or less circle the city in each direction. The red line goes one way, and the blue the opposite. They also work similar to local buses, where embark in the middle door, to grab a ticket, and then pay and leave at the front. So it takes around 10 minutes to Goryōkaku Koen Mae station (230 Yen one way) where it’s a 5 minute walk, though ice covered streets, to arrive to Goryōkaku, a star shaped fort which shape allowed for more guns turrets, and reduced blind spots around the wall. After a quick tour of the fortress area we take the lift to the observation deck of Goryōkaku Tower when it opens at 09:00AM (840 Yen) with views over surrounding mountains and on a clear day you can apparently see across to Honsho and the mainland of Japan. But we don’t stay long as we are again back on the trams, and onto the trains, as we forward on to Sapporo, for the snow festival.

Goryokaku Tower Hakodate, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Trams in Hakodate, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Hakodate Fish Market, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

The Otaru Light Festival

It is 10:48AM when we leave Hakodate station for Sapporo as we follow the east coast of Hokkaido passing oceans and seagulls on one side, and snowy hills on the opposite. The plan for the day was to travel first to our hotel in Chitose although this was rescheduled after arriving 37 minutes late to Minami Chitose station (planned arrival 14:09). This is almost unheard of elsewhere in Japan, given the ridiculous punctuality of trains in Japan, but of the very few things than can slow these trains is snow. So instead we continue on the same line to Sapporo, where we squash our bags into a locker, before boarding another train to Otaru on the earliest local train. The train ride takes around 40 minutes and the scenery is quite fascinating in itself where the tracks hugs the surrounding coastlines and waves crash against rocks covered in snow. The snow is just ridiculously thick here and how people live in these conditions is beyond me. I’m sure I’d struggle to get out of bed. Again Otaru is a Port City northwest of Sapporo where, coinciding with the Sapporo Snow Festival, they host the “Otaru Snow Light Path Festival”. This takes place only in evening times (17:00 to 21:00) and much of it happens along Otaru Canal, an area lined with converted warehouses, which is illuminated with lights and snow sculptures. It’s a straight walk to find the canal, down from the train station, and along the way we pass other nooks, and side streets which have joined the festival by carving light sculptures in the near two meter tall walls of snow which are piled along the sides of the road.

Otaru Light Festival, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Snow Sculptures Otaru, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Otaru Light Festival, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

The Sapporo Snow Festival

We stay for sunset in Otaru before boarding the train back to Sapporo station where it is just one short subway ride to reach Odori Park, the main site for the festival. But it is also easy to walk it so we open Google maps and follow it for Sapporo TV Tower, which sits at the near east end of Odori Park. This follows a straight line down and we first arrive to the “Park Air Jumping Platform” snowboarding slope which hosts air shows by the snowboarders and freestyle skiers. From here we then take a left towards the tower, before waiting in line for access to the observatory deck. This attraction opens daily between 08:30 and 22:30 (costs 720 yen to the top) and the wait, at least for us, was around forty minutes. There’s not much to it really, other than photographing from above, so we are soon back down again, in search of ramen in the connecting mall on the ground floors. And after some fantastic curry ramen we finally get to explore the main site of the snow festival. There is a lot to it, and there will be a full post to come, so this is more of a quick summary of what’s going on. So it’s more or less a full circle round the park, with a path on each side, walking on about half a foot of compressed ice. Throughout there are food stalls, heated tents, and lots of ice sculptures of course (300 plus). The highlights would definitely be the light and sound shows including otaku favourites like Final Fantasy VII and Star Wars. And some of the bigger sculptures include Kofukuji Temple (Nara), the Arc de Triomphe and a Giant Cup Noodle. Then there’s a whole load of smaller sculptures following the year’s anime, phenomenons, and viral earworms, like Pokemon Go, and PPAP, amongst other global figures, like Trump. So we do cover the entire park, from top to bottom, before following the same walk back to the station, to pull our bags again from the lockers, and finally forward on to our hotel in Chitose.

Sapporo Snow Festival, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Snow Boarding, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Sapporo Snow Sculpture, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

Sapporo at Day

We did struggle to find hotels in Sapporo itself, and as every hotel, we booked just down the line near Chitose station. It’s not ideal but it’s a whole lot cheaper and I honestly I prefer these lesser visited places as they’re much more obscure, and local, and it gives an insight into the more workaday lives of Japanese folk, out of the big cities and tourist spots. And the next morning we wake on the 6th floor above snow and quiet streets of a somewhat suburban neighbourhood. Other than a brave jogger, and a taxi or two passing the closed shutters of a pachinko parlour opposite, it is empty. It is still early when we leave the hotel and the night lights of the building opposite still cast light over the garages an snow. It’s just a surreal scene. We are now constantly in the minuses, but the temperatures do feel worse as we’re surrounded by big blocks of ice which have been piled at roadsides, and winds blow between their corridors. So we return again to Sapporo and stuff our bags again into lockers as we go to explore the second site of the Sapporo Snow festival. This is found at the crossing of Susukino, just a couple of stops on the Namboku Line at Susukino Station. This area is otherwise best known as a Red Light District, but for the time of the festival it hosts “Susukino Ice World 2017” where the road’s central crossing is lined the entire distance with ice carvings. Traffic does still pass on both sides, but it is still easy to walk between them and take photographs. It’s not a busy site. Otherwise there’s not much to do here so we kill a bit of time by walking back to the main Sapporo station via the main site of Odori Park, as this city centre area is relatively easy to navigate, with the help of Google Maps.

Susukino ice sculptures, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
PAPP Snow Sculpture, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Sapporo Street Food, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

Tokyo Lights

We don’t spend 24 hours in Sapporo, the main destination of this entire journey, yet I still feel we covered what we set out to, at least with the snow festival. While there is one further festival location, at Tsudome as its’ called, we substituted this with our journey to Otaru. I guess we’ll see it on the offchance of us ever returning. Otherwise more time doesn’t feel necessary for the snow festival and there’s a lot more of Japan still to cover. So again we are back on the long-haul, down again to the mainland, with two long stretches back to Tokyo. The first from Sapporo (10:44AM) to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (14:10PM) and then, crossing the sea from Hokkaido to Honshu, it’s from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto (leaving 14:44) to Tokyo (arriving 19:04PM). For souvenirs we bring three Sapporo beers; original, classic and gold, a bag of Hokkaido egg tarts, and just a whole load of snacks including Lawson’s Egg Sandwiches, yakiniku rice things, Pocky Almond Crush and the usual sushi rolls. The beers make it feel like a not-so-far journey and as we come to Tokyo we manage to save some time as the train passes Ueno station, where our hotel is, so we have no need to travel back to it. And this extra time is much needed as we have extra 20 minutes on the clock as we hop between JR lines and various metros to follow the quickest routes, shown on Hyperdia, to find Shiodome station “Caretta Shiodome Winter Illumination” which is found in an opposite side of the city just in time for the lightshow.

Caretta Shiodome Lights, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Shiodome at Night, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Shibuya Crossing, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

Tokyo Suburbs

So this visit to Tokyo was a short one, but we have covered a fair bit before, including our favourite themed cafes. Anyway, there’s no snow in Tokyo, and it’s not known as a winter destination, so it’s not overly important on this visit. So we instead have plans to meet our good buddy Jar where he lives out in a local neighbourhood, Shimo-Katazawa, which is just one stop down from Shibuya on the metro lines. And we are hopping again between lines to arrive for 09:06PM, six minutes out from our predicted time. Anyway, Jar shows us a more suburban life, still central, but low-rise in Tokyo, which does feel very much like out of town. So we arrive to Shimokita, as it’s better known in the Setagaya district of Tokyo, where the area is somewhat pedestrianized and feels like a hipster attraction with quirky shops, independent shops, and vintage whatnots. Although it just feels like another unusual street in Japan to me. Anyway, we catch up, he tells me about the Japanese guy he lives with, who works incredibly long hours, and lives in a tiny room, to spend his money to travel on the world. And never even shares it. Something most bloggers around the world will never understand. Anyway, the Hiroshima Omonomiyaki, which is pretty much onomiyaki with udon noodles, was fantastic. And then we call it a night to travel back to the hotel in Ueno. The next morning we wake to sleet and rain in Tokyo. And soon we are checking out again and travelling back to Shibuya. This is for Fanfan’s Duty Free shopping which I decide to let her go alone. So instead of stuffing our bags again I volunteer toguard them. I thought this was the smart idea, but I am also the one who always rushes the schedule, so I more or less left in panic as I count every second before our next proposed train to our rather expensive booked and paid for hotel, that we really look like we will miss. But finally, after Fanfan returns I rush her onto the trains again and we arrive to Tokyo Station, the 8th busiest train station in the entire world, with literally 10 minutes to find the next train and platform before departure. After a reckless dash through the station we arrive with plenty time to breath. But I really don’t understand why we would risk it.

Justin Egli Shimo-Katazawa, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Shimo-Katazawa, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Hiroshima Okonomiyaki, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

A Winter’s Dream at Takaragawa Onsen

Having now travelled far and wide in Japan, we ironically find our winter wonderland just two hours from Tokyo, where we had awaken to grey skies and rain, at Takaragawa Onsen in Minakami-machi, Gunman province. In fact we found barely a sign of snow ten minutes before arriving to Jomo-Goken station only to emerge from the final tunnel to a winter wonderland. It was somewhat surreal. Anyway the one experience, not to be missed in Japan, is the traditional ryokan experience, which is more than a typical hotel stay, but a package of must-do cultural experiences, wrapped into one. And this will normally include a Japanese style hotel suite, hot spring baths, traditional kimono dress, and, more than not, a multi-course kaiseki dinner. So we make the most of our visit to the onsens with a stay at the onsite ryokan which, for me, is my Japanese dream. Because, other than on-screen, I never really thought places like this exist in real life (our full review here). So our traditional Japanese suite overlooks the passing Takaragawa River and the suspension rope bridge, which marks the start of the forest walk to the surrounding hot spring onsens. The outdoor onsens, or roten-buro as they are known, are natural onsens where hot spring waters have been sourced from the surrounding grounds and mountains. And we more or less have 24 hours to enjoy them as they don’t close through the night. So we call in at the less busy hours, mostly for photographs, where, from the bridge connecting hotel, the baths are found dotted through the nearby forests which connect neatly to the passing river.

Travel Bloggers, Osenkaku Ryokan Takaragawa Onsen in Winter Snow
Takaragawa River, Osenkaku Ryokan Takaragawa Onsen in Winter Snow
Cold Outside, Osenkaku Ryokan Takaragawa Onsen in Winter Snow

The Ryokan Retreat

In honestly this experience did trump our previous ryokan stay, overlooking Mount Fuji, but much is also similar where we are given a choice of yukata, a casual Japanese kimono, for our stay. These are for wearing around the ryokan. Again the traditional Japanese rooms come with tatami mat flooring, heated from below, are just ridiculously cosy and hard to leave. But we are given a suitable tanzen overcoat, which more or less wraps over the inner yukata, for venturing outside, and they keep us surprisingly warm. In the evening we are given a traditional kaiseki feast with ingredients sourced from surrounding forests, which includes wild mushrooms, freshwater fish, and possibly bear. Bear soup is apparently one of the more adventurous dining options, although I’m really not certain if we ate any. As with pretty much every kaiseki we were served all sorts of weirdness, but to name some of the more obvious, there was sashimi, tempura, a table barbecue, and a fantastic sukiyaki hot-pot. Having smuggled in wine earlier, to relax before our first onsen dips, we otherwise skip on the hot sakes and hi-ball menu on the restaurant menu and return early to the room to find the layout changed after a Japanese turn-down service, where two futon beds have been spread across the tatami flooring. I could really live and die at this place but, unfortunately, we have to make do with just the one night for now, as we leave again the following morning. But I do now feel like this journey is complete, before this experience would just be too hard to beat.

Traditional Japanese Room, Osenkaku Ryokan Takaragawa Onsen in Winter Snow
Kaiseki Dinner, Osenkaku Ryokan Takaragawa Onsen in Winter Snow
Hotel Views of Osenkaku Ryokan Takaragawa Onsen in Winter Snow

Old School Osaka

So the next morning, after a last dip in the onsen baths, we take the shuttle bus back to Jomo-Goken station and start on our return stretch to Osaka. This follows a route back to Tokyo before boarding the Tokaido Shinkansen which passes Mount Fuji about 40-45 minutes from Tokyo, on the right side of the train, near Shin-Fuji Station. And we do see Fujisan’s groin, and below, as the rest of the mountain is covered with clouds. A similar situation to the time we travelled there for the Pink Flox Festival. Although we have seen the mountain in all its beauty before, during a ryokan stay at Lake Kawaguchiko, so it wasn’t a huge loss. Anyway, I didn’t expect to see snow again since leaving the tunnel out of Gunma so was surprised to see short delays with snow on the tracks in the last hour as we pass Kyoto. So we arrive to Osaka with mixed feelings, as this was our last journey of our 7 day JR Pass. We could easily have kept travelling, given extra time, but I was also relieved, and somewhat surprised, that the entire itinerary went to plan. Anyway, the train journey is now over and we now have two days to finally relax in Osaka. And while we have covered most touristy attractions in the city we could easily just stay here for weeks and eat. And this is what we do that night with katsu curries and more ominomiyaki in the Shinsekai. This would be the somewhat kitsch and retro part of the city, known for the Tsutenkaku Tower which presides in the background, along with its somewhat sketchy backstreets. And again it is just so visually fascinating to explore.

Shinsekai Neighbourhood, Marriott Miyako Hotel, Best Views of Osaka
Shinsekai district, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Katsu Curry, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

Osaka Kimono Hire

We more or less have an entire day to kill now as our flight out of Kansai Airport doesn’t leave until after midnight. So we decide to spend the day, dressed up in traditional Japanese kimonos, to tour Osaka. Part of our motivation for the motivation for this was so we wouldn’t be lumbered with luggage the entire day as they are stored safely in the shop as we got out into Osaka to explore. So this is something not new to Fanfan, who did similar in Kyoto, but the last time I dressed in costume was when I was ten, and it was Halloween. But Fanfan does somehow convince me to join along although for the men’s kimono, although it is somewhat simpler and cheaper and I do win a whole bunch of husband points. So my kimono was rather basic in comparison to Fanfan’s was more extravagant with a kanzashi hair piece, and elaborate obi belt around her waist. So we start out from the Kimono Rental Shop (Wargo), near Shinsaibashi Subway Station (full details here), which is connected in a straight line through arcades to the Dotonbori Canal area and Glico Man bridge. So we start and end in this area but decide on one lesser known temple, Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, to take most of the photos. As we both would be in the photos which needed a tripod, a camera timer, and an area relatively void of tourists. A place we failed to find on our previous Kimono hire in Kyoto. And it worked well. My main worry here was with the weather but the only really became cold at Osaka Castle, when winds picked up and snow started falling when we were on top of the hill.  But we do have a lot of time left to explore so we find ourselves doing normal things, like shopping in the duty free shops, and eating, and we spent a good thirty minutes queuing for ramen at Ichiran Dotonbori. Admittedly we do look a bit out of place throughout where we almost become the tourist attraction in ourselves.

Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Kimono Hire Osaka, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Osaka Castle, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

Last Minute Musings

Given seemingly endless food options in Osaka, I really don’t know why our last meal is the same ramen as we had started with. But it was ridiculously good ramen. So after changing back into our normal clothes, and raiding the closest FamilyMart to complete my quest in drinking every alcoholic beverage possible (although I was overlapping with much of it), we drop the wifi buddy into the mailbox at Kansai airport and finally have time to reflect on our journey. As before now we were only really rushing from one thing to the next. But I remember before setting out that I was somewhat worried that this journey would not live up to our first visit to Japan. As I find that destinations are always more exciting on the first visit, when everything is completely new. And I remember our second visit to China, when the itinerary looked ten times better on paper, but the overall experience turned out to be a let-down compared to the first visit. But because Japan is so bizarre, and mind boggling at times, there will always be something new at every turn. So I honestly can’t even compare the two different journeys, as they both felt very different. And much of this is to do with the seasons, something we don’t have with our lives in Thailand, and of course the snow. The jump to Hokkaido was like a whole different world, and everything in between was just completely different to our adventures in Spring. So now I am already thinking Japan in autumn, and what happens in summer? We still haven’t been to Okinawa yet. Already I am planning our next visit to Japan, and this is something I have never done, except for our last visit to Japan. A country I seemingly can’t get bored of.

Ichiran Dotonbori Ramen, , JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Chuhi Hi Balls, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow
Post Box Kansai Airport, JR Japan Rail Pass Travel in Winter February Snow

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