From trains to shopping, villas to temples, restaurants to karaoke, mountains to skiing and more
Japan over Christmas and New Years, with eight of us — what could possibly go wrong? Actually, very little because of some brilliant planning by my husband and my sister-in-law, eight of us managed to have an almost worry free 16 day vacation which included snow skiing in Hakuba.
Six of us met in Osaka after flying in from various parts of the world. We arrived quite late so ended up just getting to our hotel and meeting for breakfast the next morning. We spent most of the day in the hip shopping area of Orange Street which worked well since it was Dec 24 and we needed to pick up some Christmas gifts for each other. Later in the afternoon we took the train to Kyoto to meet the other two people in our party who were coming from travelling through South Korea and another area of Japan.
In Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional style Japanese Villa that had two distinct areas for sleeping and eating; one slightly larger than the other. The villas were right on the river and a very serene place to stay. On Christmas Day we went out for brunch at the Hyatt Hotel which was lovely. It had taken quite awhile the night before to find somewhere to eat because many places were closed and other places too small for eight people with a variety of eating needs.
We did a walking tour of Gion in the Geisha area of Kyoto which included a multi-course meal that catered to vegan, vegetarian, fish allergy, pescatarian and omnivore needs. Our tour guide provided a delightful story of the area and we hired her to take us on a walking along the Philosopher’s Trail.
We were able to eat lunch at a soba noodle restaurant where we took over the whole restaurant and watched the chef make the noodles for our lunch, cook and serve it to us. This was great fun for all of us and appealed to each of our dietary needs.
The Philosophers Trail is named as such because professors of the university followed this path to school and if one of their students wanted to speak with them they would attempt to walk with them and ask questions of their professors. We also rode bikes, provided by the villa, to an orange/red Shinto Temple named Fushimi Inari.
“In Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional style Japanese Villa that had two distinct areas for sleeping and eating; one slightly larger than the other. The villas were right on the river and a very serene place to stay.”
This Shinto temple is extensive on the top of a hill and defines the natural area as the Shinto Shrine and sacred. It is impressive how extensive it is. Shinto shrines are linked more to their natural surroundings than Buddhist temples. We also found an eating food hall with multiple cultural types of food which made eating much easier because we could find something for everyone.
We then took the bullet train to Tokyo. This was fun, fast and somewhat confusing so you need to have your wits about you. We were able to see and capture clear wonderful pictures of Mount Fuji.
When getting off the train you have little time to disembark so you have to make sure you are ready to go. A couple of our group left things on the train and did not have enough time to get their belongings because who knows where they may have ended up had they have got back on the train to find their belongings.
The trains are fast and efficient. It helps if you know what you are doing or someone who does because otherwise it can be a bit overwhelming as it is very busy, crowded and fast moving. People are not inclined to stop and help.
Finding the home/apartment we were staying in Tokyo took a little extra effort but we eventually found it. It was a very unusual layout but very well located and we could walk or take transit/trains to most things. My niece had just finished up an overseas university course in Tokyo so she was familiar with the city and had some idea of what she wanted to show her mother and brother and some of the rest of us if we wanted to tag along. She also had all kinds of Tokyo nightlife for us to experience. One small area has these tiny bar where not more than 10 people can sit at a squeeze and it is one small bar after the other. Each has its own theme and in general they are all fun and so interesting.
One thing we learned is that a bar that serves Saki hangs a cedar prong ball out front of its door and when the new year of Saki comes they hang a new cedar prong ball. We toured around the area of Harajuku and shopped in the hipster part of it where the prices are a bit more reasonable. We spent time at a well-noted whiskey bar trying several Japanese whiskeys. I am not a whiskey drinker but these were smooth and lovely. As with all things Japanese they have very specific ways of serving the whiskey.
We all sang our hearts out at a karaoke bar, of course we did this in the wee hours of the morning. We rang in New Years at the busiest crossing in the world, Shibuya Crossing.
“We all sang our hearts out at a karaoke bar, of course we did this in the wee hours of the morning. We rang in New Years at the busiest crossing in the world, Shibuya Crossing.”
It was quite underwhelming as far as New Year’s celebrations go, no fireworks nothing but a count down by millions of people. Shortly after wishing each other happy New Year’s we left Shibuya crossing and were able to find a tapas bar that could accommodate all eight of us, which we found amazing. So we sat, drank, talk and ate until the wee hours and then walked back to the place we were staying.
New Year’s day we travelled by bullet train to Nagano. We had some problem coordinating everyone to get to the train, which caused some problems but travelling by train was fun if a little confusing sometimes. You have to be careful because the train system can be confusing and when you get off at your stop you have just a few minutes to make your exit so you must make sure that you have all your belongings with you.
“Hakuba was a lovely ski town with very affordable skiing. The snow conditions were excellent.”
In Nagano we stay at a traditional Ryokan which is a Japanese hotel where you sleep on tatami mats and eat traditionally prepared meals. Traditional meals caused some problems for us because it is very unforgiving to vegans, vegetarians, and of course, my niece who has an allergy to fish. It was much easier to eat elsewhere but these hotels are owned and run by families and once you make a commitment to have a meal made for your group you must honour it even if they don’t understand how to make it conducive to the various dietary requirements.
We spent just a couple of days in Nagano and then the group split and some of us went on to Hakuba to ski, downhill and back country. Hakuba was a lovely ski town with very affordable skiing. The snow conditions were excellent. Here we stayed at another Ryokan. This one was slightly different in that it had hot baths and ensuite bathrooms in each of the rooms.
“Japan was wonderful, not cheap, but so full of beauty, order and unique culture.”
Still the breakfasts were provided by the Ryokan and for the western palate it takes some getting used to also quite often it didn’t really fit into the dietary requirement of our group. These meals are quite involved with many small dishes of varieties of food.
Hakuba has a variety of restaurants to appeal to most any tastes. It was a lovely place to go skiing and definitely a place my husband and I will return to ski at. We all left on different days at different times we took a direct bus to Narita Airport and flew home.