17 Days in Japan – Part 2

So, we are done with Tokyo and it’s time to move on (excitedly) to our next destination. This northernmost area of Japan might be the least developed as compared to other more crowded regions like Kanto (where Tokyo is) and Kansai (where Osaka and Kyoto are), but trust me when I tell you how blessed this area is with its beautiful nature and abundant produce. Let’s head up to:

HOKKAIDO

We spent the first night in Susukino, which is a district in Sapporo, right in the middle of the most populated area of Hokkaido. Famous for its night life as much as its cold winter, we spent our short time there exploring the snowy town, while constantly trying not to slip on the ice and fall down. I did. My butt hurt bad.

Happy travellers.
Happy travellers.
The whole crew minus Rizky behind the camera.
The whole crew minus Rizky behind the camera.

To kickstart our Hokkaido exploration, we had to eat some Hokkaido-style Snow Crab while we were there. We then head to a renowned crab buffet restaurant right in Susukino: Ebi-Kani Gassen.

Pretty display of every portion of crab legs you order.
Pretty display of every portion of crab legs you order.

For ¥3,900 (~SGD 44.5) we got to choose between set A (Hairy Crab) or B (King Crab), and both include free flow Snow Crab and Sushi. We chose King Crab and ate like kings. It was such a liberating feeling – going inside a warm restaurant after walking around in -9°, served warm tea and then BOOM! Unlimited sweet juicy crab legs. We were so excited to gobble up the crabs and did so until one of us got a nosebleed. It might have been me.

PSA: The price of the menu has increased to ¥4,500 today (~SGD 51.4) as can be seen on the website.

Ebi-kani Gassen (えびかに合戦)
Address: 〒064-0804 Sapporo, Chuo-ku, Minami 4 Jonishi, 5 
〒064-0804 北海道札幌市中央区南4条西5丁目5
Phone:+81 11-210-0411
Hours: 4:00 pm – 12:00 am
Beautiful night in Susukino.
Beautiful night in Susukino.

The next day, we took a 2-hours ride by bus to our real destination in Hokkaido. The ski resort.

NISEKO

Niseko is the most famous ski resort in Japan, which we would later learn why. It is especially famous for the light powder snow which, I’m not kidding, is as soft as actual powder. It’s amazing.

Niseko Annupuri Mountain, the jewel of Hokkaido.
Niseko Annupuri Mountain, the jewel of Hokkaido.
Thick snow was really thick.
Thick snow was really thick.
Instant snowball fight!
Instant snowball fight!
Snow flakes on my thick glove. The beautiful shape was visible to the naked eye and it remained for a couple seconds before my body warmth melted it.
Snow flakes on my thick glove. The beautiful shape was visible to the naked eye and it remained for a couple seconds before my body warmth melted it.

In Niseko, we spent 2 nights in a ryokan, traditional Japanese-style inn called Kanro No Mori.

Hotel Kanro No Mori (ホテル甘露の森)
Address: Japan, 〒048-1511 北海道虻田郡 ニセコ町ニセコ415番地
Phone:+81 136-58-3800

It was everyone’s first time experience in a ryokan, and it took us by surprise how well they treated their customers, miles and beyond regular a hotel.

We were provided silk yukata (traditional Japanese robe, a casual version of the more expensive kimono).
We were provided silk yukata (traditional Japanese robe, a casual version of the more expensive kimono).
The dining room where we were served an 8-course Kaiseki (会席), traditional Japanese set meal, for dinner.
The dining room where we were served an 8-course Kaiseki (会席), traditional Japanese set meal, for dinner.
They even specially prepared an English menu for us!
They even specially prepared an English menu for us!
Otsukuri (お造り) a selection of Sashimi.
Otsukuri (お造り) a selection of Sashimi.
Us patiently waiting for our food. That sombre look was actually intense hunger.
Us patiently waiting for our food. That sombre look was actually intense hunger.

The next day we spent skiing. Actual ski in actual snow. Skiing in Annupuri Mountain in Niseko is in everybody’s to-do list whenever it’s winter in Hokkaido, and we were lucky because we chose it over other ski resorts. It is really famous, and you will meet tourists from all over the world in this resort, especially Australians. it’s very interesting how we met a lot of Australians who make a living teaching ski and snowboarding in Niseko and Australia at the same time, as the winters are in different period of the year. These are people who truly have deep passion for snow.

While the snow was soft as powder and fun to touch, the ski is just as challenging as any other places. Annupuri has several level of difficulties for the ski courses, and it is vital to master at least the basics of going straight, controlling direction, and braking, especially braking, actually. This is because when you ski, you go fast. You go really fast.

Sadly I couldn’t possibly bring my camera as I was positive I would break it way before I break some of my own bones while skiing.

Rizky chugging his Coke after skiing. It’s apparently some sort of statement.
Rizky chugging his Coke after skiing. It’s apparently some sort of statement.
Me in fully rented ski gear.
Me in fully rented ski gear.

The evening after skiing, while I was lucky to not break any bones, our legs hurt so much nobody could walk properly, so Timothy and I decided to spend a couple hours soaking in the outdoor hot spring, sauna and the massage chair.

The indoor onsen or natural hot spring. It’s open 20 hours a day and it’s a godsend for tired people to rejuvenate.
The indoor onsen or natural hot spring. It’s open 20 hours a day and it’s a godsend for tired people to rejuvenate.

The next morning, with really heavy heart and stupidly sore legs, we left Hokkaido.

Bye bye soft snow. :(
Bye bye soft snow. 🙁

Now, we actually flew to Osaka from Hokkaido and spent our new year there, but so many interesting things happened in Osaka I decided to keep it for the last part of this trilogy. So instead of Osaka, I will share about the place we went before ending our journey.

KYOTO

If you have seen the movie Memoirs of A Geisha, you will probably have an idea of what Kyoto is: traditions, cultures and, of course, geisha. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1000 years, and over that period the city had been subject to innumerable wars, fires and destruction. Only Kyoto always rebuilt. It was what made Japan the Japan that we know and love today.

We decided beforehand that our short Kyoto trip will be almost exclusively temple-centric, as there are over 1600 Buddhist temples in the historic city, and we really wanted to visit and marvel at some of the more renowned ones.

Mr Valentino experiencing how it was to be a sealed vampire like in the 70s Chinese movies.
Mr Valentino experiencing how it was to be a sealed vampire like in the 70s Chinese movies.

Kinkaku-ji was the first one we visited because we stayed near the area. Bracing icy gusts slightly harsher than those in Tokyo, we made the trip to this glistening gold temple. The top part of the building is covered completely in gold leaf and even from afar it is definitely a gorgeous sight, standing resolutely in the middle of a quiet pond. The present temple we can visit was built in 1955, as it had been destroyed and burn numerous times during the warring era.

Kinkakuji (金閣寺) which literally translates to ‘Golden Pavilion’
Kinkakuji (金閣寺) which literally translates to ‘Golden Pavilion’
Smaller temples in Kinkakuji complex
Smaller temples in Kinkakuji complex
We kinda pretended it was not really cold (it was)
We kinda pretended it was not really cold (it was)
Timothy and me with our Ema (絵馬) – wooden wishing plaques of Japanese shrines
Timothy and me with our Ema (絵馬) – wooden wishing plaques of Japanese shrines

Another highlight is the Kiyomizudera, probably the most famous temple in Japan, celebrated by many in the country. Besides the historic value, it is well-known for its wooden stage that juts out beautifully from its main hall. It is elevated 13-meters atop the hillside, and had been standing there for over 1300 years. In 1994, Kiyomizudera was added to the list of UNESCO world heritage sites.

Kiyomizudera (清水寺) literally “Pure Water Temple” nearing sunset.
Kiyomizudera (清水寺) literally “Pure Water Temple” nearing sunset.
Sakura tree at winter around the temple. Although there were no leaves, the pink-coloured buds were prominent and still attractive to admire
Sakura tree at winter around the temple. Although there were no leaves, the pink-coloured buds were prominent and still attractive to admire

dsc_9569

Other temples that we visited were Ginkakuji and Fushimi Inari. If we had more days over there, we would definitely have covered much more temples, but alas, I think we still made the best out of what we had!

Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates. The whole journey took us nearly 3 hours to scale the trek uphill and back down again.
Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) is famous for its thousands of vermilion torii gates. The whole journey took us nearly 3 hours to scale the trek uphill and back down again.

But Kyoto is not just about temples! Traditional shopping districts, geisha and tea brewing performances and people walking around town in Kimono and geta (traditional Japanese wooden sandals) are a much more common sight here than most places in Japan. We enjoyed ourselves tremendously and personally I would go back there in a heartbeat.

The Higashiyama District near Kiyomizudera is one of the city’s best preserved historic districts. It is a great place to experience traditional old Kyoto where the narrow lanes, wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops invoke a feeling of the old capital city.
The Higashiyama District near Kiyomizudera is one of the city’s best preserved historic districts. It is a great place to experience traditional old Kyoto where the narrow lanes, wooden buildings and traditional merchant shops invoke a feeling of the old capital city.
Higashiyama at night.
Higashiyama at night.
Matias and I dared ourselves to say hi to a couple girls in Kimono. They were very happy to pose for us overexcited foreigners!
Matias and I dared ourselves to say hi to a couple girls in Kimono. They were very happy to pose for us overexcited foreigners!

Our trip in historical Kyoto wouldn’t be complete, however, if we didn’t meet some real, authentic geisha. After a little googling and asking around, we found ourselves in Gion Corner.

With a reasonable ¥2,200 student price, we made it in time for an evening full of tradition and entertainment. The performance in Gion corner includes a variety of things, such as Kyo-Mai Dance (Traditional Maiko dance performance), Ikebana (Flower arrangement), Ryurei-style Tea Ceremony, Koto Performance, Kyogen (Ancient Japanese comedy) and Puppet Theatre. Yeah, we got all that for only ~SGD 25. It was fantastic.

Kyo-Mai Dance, performed by a Maiko before she becomes a full-pledged Geisha
Kyo-Mai Dance, performed by a Maiko before she becomes a full-pledged Geisha
Gion Corner
Address: Japan, 〒605-0074 570-2 弥栄会館 Yasaka Hall, Kyoto
Phone: +81 75-561-1119
Hours: Everyday starting at 6:00pm and at 7:00pm

Tips for visiting Gion Corner: Try to come earlier at around lunch time to purchase your ticket or even call them beforehand if possible. Tickets run out pretty fast especially during holiday seasons. Check out Gion Corner Official Website for more info and reservations.

Our hostel room at Golden Pavilion House near Kinkakuji. It deserves a special mention because of how rustic and cool it was.
Our hostel room at Golden Pavilion House near Kinkakuji. It deserves a special mention because of how rustic and cool it was.

And again, let me end this post with something special. Hint: it’s food. In Singapore, we are familiar with Santouka Ramen. It has been popular for quite some time. But now that we were actually in Japan, we were wondering if we could find this supposedly authentic, famous ramen shop in the heart of Kyoto. And we did find it. (after getting lost for nearly one hour).

When we arrived, it was packed and we were instantly devastated. It was freezing outside, but the shop worker quickly set us up some tiny chairs and turned out this gigantic heater for us to keep warm as we were not allowed to wait inside the shop so other patrons would not be disturbed. Such unique service. Eventually we got in and… yeah.

Ramen Santouka (らーめん山頭火) in Kyoto has a very distinct interior than anything we’d ever seen in Singapore. It was not excessively spacious, but it was very cozy and warm.
Ramen Santouka (らーめん山頭火) in Kyoto has a very distinct interior than anything we’d ever seen in Singapore. It was not excessively spacious, but it was very cozy and warm.
The specialty: Black Pork Cheek Ramen, or Tokusen Toroniku Ramen.
The specialty: Black Pork Cheek Ramen, or Tokusen Toroniku Ramen.

The tender, flavoured slices of pork cheek are separate from your noodle. This is so you can dip the slice in your hot soup, let the fats ready to soften and butterize, and then bite the pork cheek separately and savour the immaculate taste of the meat as it melts in your mouth. The noodles are Asahikawa style, my favourite: springy, curly yellow noodle with thick Tonkotsu pork bone broth. I recommend getting the noodle Shio style, which means only salt was used in the broth. This beauty cost me ¥1200 (around $14 today) and it was worth every penny. I swear this bowl I had in Kyoto beats Singapore’s Santouka ramen to a T.

Ramen Santouka Kyoto Sanjo (らーめん山頭火 京都三条店)
Address: Japan, 〒605-0008 137 Daikokucho Yamatoojidori 3-jo Sagaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
Phone:+81 75-532-1335
Hours: 11:00 am – 12:00 am

Planning to go to Japan yet? Hang on, don’t buy your flight tickets until you read the last part of our journey: New Year in Osaka and a visit to Nara! じゃあね!

You may also like

3 comments