Considering how many countries we’ve visited, people were always shocked to find we had never been to Japan. We finally made it at the start of 2019 and promptly, like everyone else I’ve spoken to, fell madly in love with the country.
One of the wonderful things about Japan is that it feels like you are truly travelling, entering into a parallel universe where things are just slightly different to everything you are used to.
Our trip was predominantly a ski trip with a bit of sightseeing added in. We were travelling in late February to early March so we chose to stay on the main island so that we only had to take one international flight and to avoid any potential weather issues. This was we could fly into Tokyo, meet up with our friends and then catch the famous Japanese Shinkansen bullet trains to the slopes.
There are dozens of blog posts out there debating the benefits of the various Japanese rail passes, we ended up selecting the JR East Pass for 5 travelling days within a 14 day period. On the travel days, your pass is unlimited. It is worth closely mapping out your journey against the map provided on the JR website to ensure you are able to visit where you are planning to go on the pass before you decide to buy it. This pass covered the Nagano and Niigata area, which was perfect for our trip. If we weren’t on a ski holiday I would’ve used the pass a bit more to take day trips.
It is notoriously complicated to get data roaming on your phone or a temporary sim while in Japan. As we knew we would be out and about and need data, we pre-booked a Japanese wifi-box which we picked up from Tokyo airport. This was brilliant as we could use it with multiple devices and meant we had internet access to access/call/research things on the go.
We skied in Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Kogen.
Out of those, my recommendation to others is definitely Nozawa Onsen. It is a charming Japanese village with plenty of history, good restaurants, accommodation skiing and of course onsens. We stayed at Hotel Schneider as it was ski-in ski-out, in hindsight, I wouldv’e preferred staying somewhere in the town as we ended up trekking back up to the hotel in the snow in the middle of the night multiple times. There is over snow transport provided but they follow a strict schedule. Luckily, if you stay in town there are covered escalators you can take up the slopes, which means less hiking in ski boots. Nozawa also has great food options and cute little coffee shops like the adorable Haus St Anton, where you can also buy Oyaki, a traditional style steamed bun popular the Nagano prefecture of Japan. The buns can be sweet or savoury, I strongly recommend trying the apple as a sweet option.
The other delicious item from the region is Nozawana, which is generally served as pickled greens. I lovely this dish and it was served plentifully at most traditional restaurants we went to. You can also combine the two and have Nozawana in your Oyaki buns!
Whilst we recommend Nozawa Onsen to everyone, our favourite destination was actually Shiga Kogen. This is a vast ski resort that is not particularly developed for international tourism. It was slightly more difficult to get to and get around, but we had incredible conditions, multiple mountains we could access and wonderful traditional accommodation at Hotel Shirakabaso which meant we fell in love with the area. Shiga Kogen is also close to the snow monkey park, so we managed to squeeze a visit in there before we left. Getting to Shiga Kogen was slightly more complicated on public transport as the only timetable I could access for the bus was in Japanese and PDF format. Luckily, like in all of Japan, the staff at the information desk at Iiyama train station were extremely helpful and after showing them our destination, were able to circle the stop on the Japanese map for us, which we then showed the bus driver and he made sure we got off at that stop. Hotel Shirakabaso is a traditional Japanese style mountain lodge and has both traditional Japanese tatami rooms and standard western rooms available. We requested a room on the top floor which came with a massage chair. As part of your room rate you are also provided a full breakfast and multiple course dinner every single night with a varying menu and local delicacies. The hotel also has multiple onsens, ski hire and facilties to wax and tune your skis.
We certainly enjoyed Hakuba but found its spread out style between the little towns and ski areas as well as the heavy tourism detraction from our enjoyment of the area.
We went to visit a wasabi farm near Matsumoto which was incredible, although there were no tour options or brochures in English so we used the google translate app with our Japanese guide to walk around the wasabi farm and try the ice cream. In Matsumoto we stayed in a Japanese business hotel, which was possibly the tiniest hotel room we have ever stayed in but the lovely hotel staff, excellent location and beautiful view from the breakfast area certainly made up for it. The hotel reception also gave us advice on which train to take to visit the Wasabi farm.
We found having basic Japanse extremely useful during our trip. We used the Mirai app to learn basic Japanese in the lead up to our trip then we used google translate optical character recognition (OCR) and the voice-to-voice translating function on the Google Translate app while we were there. The OCR function means you can hover the camera over Japanese signs and menus so you can instantly translate them.
On our last night in Tokyo we visited the tiny bars of the “Golden Gai” area and staying up far too late for our flights the next day.
Trip video: here is an insight into our adventure (plus 24 hours in Taiwan at the end)