Japan

Japan 2017 ~ Hokkaido (Pt2)

Finally getting to the last part of my Japan 2017 Spring Holiday recollections. It was a memorable trip largely in part because of the self driving experience which let us explore Japan outside of the usual touristy areas. I’m pretty sure this will be the mode of our travel for our future trips to Japan.

STAY:

Apr 9-11 Hotel Nord Otaru

(images credit to Hotel Nord Otaru link above)

This hotel was chosen mainly because of its location, its right in front of the famous Otaru Canal. We drove so proximity to station was not a concern however it is a plus to know  that this hotel is within walking distance from iconic Otaru JR station as well.

As the picture shown above, I’ve booked the Grande Family room(Western & Japanese style). It is huge at 57sqm. The tatami area was used to put 2 extra futons for us to sleep. This room can accomodates up to 6 though I do not recommend it, max 5 would be comfortable and it was spacious enough even for 4 of us. The pic only shows the sleeping room area. There is a walkway from entrance that leads to a pantry, 2 toilets and a big vanity and bathroom area as well, so yeah its huge by any Japanese standard.

Parking is a multi-level parking by lift (which is common in city area of Japan). Usually the hotel staff would do that for you, you just drive into the driveway, unload your stuff and let them do the parking for you. There is a daily parking fee of course at 1,000yen per day.

Everyone loved the room, its clean, smells fresh and yes they do have the origami cranes in the room as in the pic shown above. It’s close to S$300 a night including the parking just for the room without meals but I would reckon it is worth it since its more like a suite. If you are not driving just take note, its a slope down to the hotel from the Otaru station so while going back up the slope with your luggages may be a chore for some, you can take it as some form of excercise if you are healthy and fit.

Apr 11-13 Sapporo Excel Hotel Tokyu

This is a big hotel so expect it to be touristy, but maybe I was there off season? since I really did not see much of tourists here which I liked. The main reason this hotel was chosen because of its price since its off from the main Sapporo station. It is about 5 minutes walk to the nearest Nakajima-Koen station which is 2 stops away from Sapporo station. Since we are driving, the location was not much of a problem, parking is at 1,300yen per day. You can walk to the popular Susukino area as long as it is not too cold, its about 10-12 minutes walk.

I’ve booked the premium twin room(33sqm)  here since the price was cheap at S$125 per room per night, that’s S$250 per night for us since we need 2 rooms. We were given the top floor which gave us plenty of peace and good views, I would say its a great bargain. The hotel and room is clean and modern, they literally have staff waiting at almost every area to welcome/greet you. I do not eat at the hotels I stay unless meals are included, there is a convenience just right across the road which makes me very convenient for us to grab our breakfasts. If you can find a good price like me, I would say grab it, do for the premium rooms, looking at the pictures of the standard rooms I would say it is worth paying a little bit extra.

Bonus: The room I was in has a whole block of USB points(6) for us to charge our electrical stuffs, we don’t have to take turns here. Wish every hotel has one, it is so convenient, plus it is a fast charger too.

Extras: View from hotel room on a clear night and on a sudden snowy day. Hokkaido weather as we learned can be unpredictable, be prepared anyway.

 

PLAY:

Apr 9

Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe

I had wanted to see the Penguin walk in Hokkaido Asahiyama Park but it was out of season but I found an alternative in Noboribetsu Marine Park while planning my route, so this became a stop for us enroute to our next destination in Otaru.

It is actually a pretty small compact marine park and I would say the admission at 2,450yen was on the high side. It was very crowded on the day we visited, with loads of tourists which marred some quiet experience. Because of this, we only caught 2 shows, mainly the Penguin Parade and the Sardine light show. Asahiyama Park is more popular than here but if it happens to be on your way why not drop by but I still find the admission price a bit steep, I recommend Otaru aquarium(which I will cover below) above this place.

For the penguin parade, there are lines depicting the route, so make sure you stay along the front to get a good view. The penguins are adorable as they wobble and walk and some curious ones get really up close to you. It is a fun experience to see penguins especially King Penguins so up close. I personally love the sardine light and sound show, it was a pretty sight to behold, just not sure if my pics tells the same story.

Surprise find: We decided to lunch here before heading off and went into one of the restaurants in the park. Restaurant “Lindetraet” serves fantastic pastas. Both my kids ordered the spaghetti bolognese and are bowled over by it saying its the best they have tasted so far. They are famous for their ice creams too, so if you come here, do check this restaurant out.

Otaru Music Box Museum

Okay, technically speaking, this is not a museum. It’s more retail shopping concept with certain parts of it dedicated to displaying antique rare music boxes. They have a few building all along the same street and even better there’s no admission fees. It’s mind boggling the amount and type of music boxes they have in here, some pics below.

There are many other shops along this stretch of road where the music box museum is, such as the Taisho glass and Kitachi glass outlet as well as food and drinks many offering samples to try. You can spend some time wandering about and shopping. LeTao main store is here too which I will elaborate below.

Apr 10

Otaru canal/Otaru Station

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Otaru is famous for their picturesque otaru canal in winter. I can’t say the same when it is not clad with snow, its just looks like an ordinary canal to me but its a place where I take my morning walks while everyone is still in dreamland. Otaru Canal is also lined with restaurants and shops, which we never tried any even though they are famous for the freshness of their sushi and sashimi since they are right next to the sea. We are not fans of sushi/sashimi you see. For those who are, you can check them out.

Otaru Aquarium

A last minute plan to visit the Otaru aquarium since we called off plan to visit Cape Kamui since it is a good 2 hours drive away and no one was keen on the long journey. It is a good choice I would say, with admission fees only at 1,000yen it was a steal with the many surprising offerings we find inside.

My kids thoroughly enjoyed the aquarium despite this being similar in concept to the marine park at noboribetsu which we visited only a couple of days back. In fact, Otaru aquarium has much more to offer compared to the marine park. Another advantage, it is not crowded, that is probably because we went on a weekday and it is not a public or school holiday. The place is huge and we really took our time exploring it. If want to see the cute little penguins walk(no King penguins here), they have it here too. The dolphin show was a highlight and we could really get up close to the dolphins after the show like right in front of them and one of them was a show off too, performing for us even after the show ended ^__^ (the one in my pic above). We caught the cute penguins show, seal show as well as the sea-lion show, I think we watched every show that is available!

However, it was a poor  turtle who lost one flipper that caught the attention and heart of my kids at the aquarium. (pic below credit link )They lingered around it at the beginning and at the end. Pity I forgot its name but yes it was pitiful to see if swimming along with just 3 flippers.

otaruturtle

We also loved the walrus family here(pic below credit Otaru Aquarium), the baby is only 1 year old but was already big in my eyes, the father is humongous but honestly I think the place given to them is too small in my opinion.

walrus family

 

Fun fact: We paid a small fee for a bucket of fish to feed the sea lions and was given a stick. We were puzzled and wondered why? My son quickly chipped in to explain what the old man was trying to tell us, it is to ward off the sea-gulls. The area where the sea lions are kept is in the open,(see pic below of view of Otaru aquarium from the observation point) hence the sea gulls are every where, so while feeding, they will swoop in and take the food you are about to feed the sea-lions or seals. We learn a new thing everyday, it was fun trying to feed the sea-lions and trying to ward off the annoying sea gulls at the same time. Well they did get away with one or two fish. My girl was so upset with them stealing the fish haha but its their natural way to survive.

Otaru Shukutsu Panorama Observation Deck

The link given is in Japanese since the English link just show general info of Otaru city.

Like the Otaru aquarium, this was not in the original plan. This was the substitute for Cape Kamui so as to say. This worked out well since this observation deck is just less than 10 minutes drive from where we stay and a stone’s throw away from Otaru Aquarium, killing 2 birds with one stone.

This is a very scenic point in my view, from my limited photography skills, the pic still came off pretty considering these are taken through mobile phone. It is not crowded which will always be a plus point for us, in one of the pic above, you can see it also oversees the Otaru Aquarium right below. There is no admission fee too, if you do not drive, just take the bus to Otaru Aquarium(details avail from the Otaru aquarium website link above) and take a slow hike up, it is not a very long way up but it is quite steep so its not too easy (well at least for me with knee problem) but if you are young and healthy it shouldn’t be much of a difficulty. Alternatively you could just rent a car for a day in Otaru itself or take a cab. There is also a lighthouse observation point nearby, but we didn’t visit it since no one wanted to climb up ^^;

Apr 11

Shiroi Koibito Park

The famous white chocolate factory in Hokkaido that makes your favourite white chocolate biscuits above. There is an admission fee of 600yen per person. This was actually a disappointment for us, inside the ‘factory’ there was a lot of other displays which we felt was out of place, the only thing that interests and attracts us was seeing how these white chocolate biscuits was made. Other than that, you would be spending more time at the retail shop, advice is to buy stuff that is only available here since these biscuits can be bought almost anywhere else in Japan. We bought some ‘popping chocolates’ which we taught was unique (it makes popping sound as you eat them) as souvenirs, otherwise it was a very short trip here.

 

EAT:

MUST TRY:

I am not a foodie expert, nor am I very particular about food, in fact I am easy to please so if it it appears here, you must try it. LoL.

The shop name:

らーめん渡海家

My son was the one who recommended this ramen shop to us. It is a very short walk from Otaru station and not too far from Hotel Nord Otaru where we stayed. It is a very small store manned by 2 persons, the owner(also the chef) and his assistant. It was full when we went there and we had to wait before we got a place. The menu is not extensive just a few items but it is precisely these few items they specialised in.

After we placed our order it was another long wait since each of ramen is made only upon order including the soup base. The roast pork is friend separately before placing into the bowl. The fried gyoza is equally delicious, we had to order a second helping. Everyone of us finished up the bowl of ramen, including my girl who usually don’t eat pork, my hubby and son even slurped up all the soup. A spoonful of chilli is given to you to add according to your liking.

It is very popular, I think its name has spread by word although it is in quite a inconspicuous little lane and corner. We wanted to go by the next day for another meal but was sad that it was their off day of the week. So if you are in Otaru, be sure to check this one out, it will be worth it.

Side note: Hokkaido ramen is different from mainland Tokyo in that in Tokyo their soup base is mainly Tonkatsu or Shoyu. In Hokkaido, they specialises in Miso base soup which in my opinion is pretty tasty. I find that I love Hokkaido ramen more than the usual tonkatsu based ramen.

Hokkaido’s milk products is also very famous. Their cheeses, milk, fresh cream are simply delicious. being a diary lover, it was heaven for me. So don’t missed them if you are in the area.

OTHERS:

LeTAo

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LeTao is available for purchase in Singapore. I didn’t know that it originated from Otaru. They have the main store with a restaurant here, pic show above as well as a cafe just across the road. They hand out samples for you to try for most of their products, they are famous for their chocolate and cheese products. They are not particularly cheap but I do love their chocolates and cheese fromage cake. We bought some as souvenirs to be brought back home as well as popped over to the cafe across the road for the cheese fromage cake. Even if you don’t intend to buy, popped in for the free samples if you are visiting the music box museum. The cheese fromage cake is a must try unless you do not like milk or cheese products like my hubby.

Experiencing Jpop fandom 

My girl is a Jpop fan as compared to many teens who are Kpop fans. One of her fav groups was actually having a concert in Hokkaido during the time we will be there. Unfortunately, we were not able to get any concert tickets since they were all sold out to their fan club members. So to lessen the disappointment, we decided to pop into the concert venue on the actual day to buy some concert momento.  When we reach the stadium where the concert was held, all we could see was queues and queues of girls all dressed up and waiting patiently to get into the concert hall. We even see accompanying parents and some young parents with babies in tow. They are very organised btw and it was just interesting to see this scene and experience it since I never experience such things during my teen years.My girl was green with envy wishing she could be in the queue and knowing that she is so close and yet unable to attend it. But she is happy with the concert momento that she was able to buy to keep as a consolation.

 

 

 

Japan

Japan 2017 ~ Self-Drive Experience

Self Drive Experience

It was our first self-drive experience in Japan.

We book our car rental in Japan through a local agency NTA Travel Agency. I discovered this agency at the Travel fair, I like that they are very flexible with arrangements because I have a lot of requirements and they were very helpful in my planning especially especially with my Hokkaido leg. I could do everything online on my own including the car rental but since they have already helped me with quite a bit of stuff, I decided to let them handle the car rental as well as 1st 2 night of my Hokkaido trip with them. I rented the car for 4 days for travel around Kanto Region and for 8 days for travel in Hokkaido.

Kanto Region (Fujikawaguchiko/Hakone)

Picking up car at the rental location was easy even though the person speak limited English. Everything was basically covered and prepaid for through the agency but I have to pay cash for the ETC card rental(something like our cashcard) as well as a bit extra for insurance to cover everything ie to reduce my liability to 0. The extra insurance was really cheap compared to renting in Australia or Europe. It was barely S$20 for 4 days, you’ll never know what happen when you are overseas so its better to get yourself covered. You pay the toll fees at when you return the car.

toyotasienta A sample pic of the car that was given to us, its a Toyota Sienta, a mini wagon under category Type W1. It is boxy and not that big but it can seat max 7 but with luggage you can only seat 4 comfortably. The boot space isn’t really that big, we just barely managed to fit in 2 big luggage, 2 cabin-size luggage, a backpack size hand trolley bag and a hand carry bag. All in its about S$480 for 4 days which makes up an average of S$120 per day.

The car comes equipped with English GPS however it heavily relies on knowing your destination telephone number to get you there. Unfortunately, I think the GPS in the car is not the latest or not updated as it didn’t even recognise the telephone number of Sengokuhara Prince hotel which is where we are going next. So the toyota staff had to input the destination location for us using the japanese address. Because of this, we couldn’t divert anywhere else on the first day and decide to just faithfully follow the directions to our hotel for today.

We did however made a rest stop at Ebina SA along Tomei Highway. (SA-means its a major rest stop with many shops and eateries as well as petrol station, PA means its just a toilet/rest stops with drink vending machines or a small convenient store.) This rest stop is really amazingly BIG. The toilets are clean and huge! BTW the toilets have these indicators right in front that will let you know which cubicle is vacant and which is occupied (much like those red and green lights you see at carparks). There is a supermarket here, food court, as well as many snack and souvenir shops. Hence it is also a crowded place with most people choosing to make a stop here including tour buses. We took our time to try out the snacks, had an ice-cream, a Char Siew pau(yes you heard me right, cha siew pau from a stall selling Yokohama chinatown pau) as well as bought some chicken karagge to munch along the way.(pic below: Ebina SA)

ebinaSA

As we continue our way, we miss our exit and had to take a longer time to reach out destination. But Japan GPS is very quick to respond to our mistake and re-routed very fast, we lost a good 15mins due to the mistake. By the time we were at Hakone, it was almost evening and the sun was setting and it was getting dark. I had hope to prevent this situation since its the first time we are driving in Japan. To make it worse as we were nearing our destination, the roads became really small like single lane and there was not much lighting, we see a lot of residential houses but it really doesn’t seem like there is any big hotel around. Finally when we reach the spot as the GPS indicated, we saw this huge big lighted up sign that has our hotel name on it. Phew what a relief, we’ve made it safely to our destination! hurray!

For the short 4 days, we did quite a bit of driving but we try to stick to highways which are usually toll roads since it is our first attempt at self-drive in Japan. And if you think SG’s ERP is expensive, wait till you see Japan’s tolls. We paid about S$100 in total tolls just for 4 days drive. So suddenly the S$1.50 ERP fare in SG seems so economical.

Japan roads are pretty well maintained and drive is smooth and for most of the time scenic~unless you choose to drive in city. Overall first impression of self-drive~it was not as difficult as imagined. GPS guidance was ok(anyway I had my google map guide backup), plus the road signs do have English text so it was pretty easy to look out for it. It was a pleasant drive experience so far and certainly boost our confidence for our next Hokkaido leg!

It is not difficult to book the car rental online without an agent, links for them with English navigation as below;

Toyota

Nissan

Of course, there are many other options, but just take note not all may be foreigner friendly as in English communication may not be as easy. Do take note however, most car rental locations are off site from airport not on site. So do add extra time when returning car before flying. What we did, park and drop everyone off at the airport, check in then driver return car, the rental company will shuttle the driver back to the airport.

Hokkaido

Unlike in Tokyo, where we pick up in city centre, we pick up our car in Hokkaido at Hakodate airport when we landed. Similarly, they only have a counter there, we were shuttled to their car rental location not too far away to pick up our car.

In Kanto, we paid for the tolls fees at the end, but for Hokkaido, they have a prepaid toll card called HEP(Hokkaido Expressway) which charges a fixed charge per day. I took this up since I didn’t have time to check out the exact toll charges and since we will be driving a lot in Hokkaido. I paid around S$100 for 8 days of driving in Hokkaido which is equivalent to the 4 days travel in Kanto.

This time, we were given a bigger car Toyota ISIS as compared to the one in Kanto. The car also falls under W1 mini wagon. This car can easily fit 8 persons comfortably. It has a bigger boot space too but Alan says it has no power.  Pic below(cr:Toyotacarrental)

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I would like to say that the GPS equipped in this car was way better than the one provided in Kanto. It is definitely newer and more up to date. Other than that, it provides navigation for cafes/restaurants/petrol stations in English as a sub menu. It also has 3D navgation plus it tells us when the next toll gate/rest stop is. I guess maybe more foreigners drive in Hokkaido hence the better equipped and more advanced GPS? Cost of rental in Hokkaido appears to be higher as it is about S$150 per day. But do take note that I probably paid higher because I went through an agent, it is cheaper if you book direct with them online.

Japanese car are also fuel economical. The amount of mileage we cover in one tankful is pretty amazing. We only top up fuel on return of car for Kanto and we did just one fuel top up for Hokkaido plus a refuel to full tank on return.

Driving in Hokkaido is also very pleasant and easy. For 8 days, we covered the main areas in South/Central Hokkaido which is Hakodate, Sapporo and Otaru. We also went to Lake Toya as an enroute. However, do take note that Hokkaido’s weather changes drastically within minutes. It could be snowing heavily and in a flash you see blue skies. So do check out the weather forecast before you drive especially if you drive in winter.

We drove from Apr6-Apr13(Spring) but as Hokkaido is in the northern area, it is still very cold and you still can see snow around, it even snowed when we were there. But the roads were cleared of snow so it was still easy to drive. Even driving along the Hokkaido Expressways you get great views everywhere from the sea to your left and the mountains to your right. But one thing I do take notice while driving in Hokkaido was there is this sign almost everywhere. “Beware of Horizontal wind” strong winds can be felt in Hokkaido in most parts and I really mean strong winds, sometimes our car can swerve a little bit because of it. Make sure you do not drive too fast on these stretches of road.

This self-drive trip has changed my mind about self-driving holiday in Japan.  If I return Japan for holiday, I would definitely do self-drive, it is highly recommended especially if you travel in groups or family. The flexibility of a self-drive holiday definitely surpasses tour groups or even train travel(because you need to adhere to train timings and moving around with luggage).

Unless you prefer to sit back and do nothing, self-driving in Japan is actually doable and enjoyable. They have many scenic drives and nice non-touristy places which is not easily accessible without a car. I’ve been to Japan at least 6 times and mostly travelled using trains but if a Shinkansen ticket cost hundreds of dollars, it is more economical for a family of 4 of us to do self-driving. I think this would be the way we travel in Japan the next time we decide to visit again.

 

 

Japan

Japan 2017 ~ Hakone/Lake Kawaguchiko

STAY:

Apr 3-4 SengoKuhara Prince Hotel

This hotel is right beside a golf course, off Hakone town, they provide free bus shuttle service to nearest train station at specific timings. The hotel is big, and has a resort feel, it has fantastic views of golf course as well as the mountains nearby. It’s a non-smoking hotel which I like and which is rare to find in Japan.

We booked the Superior Twin Room, the cheapest one but it is already a generous 29sqm room. (Actually it feels bigger than that) The bath/toilet/closet/vanity area is on a higher level than the actual bedroom which is pretty unique in Japan. I like that the balcony has great view of the golf course and mountains. Everywhere we go, we had to ask for extra adaptors for our charging needs(we only have one travel adaptor and we have so many handphones/laptop/ipad/powerbanks). This modern room has 2 USB charging point at the bedside which is great for us. They provide us 2 pillows each, one hard, one soft for your own picking.

Do note due to its secluded location, there is not much choices of food nearby, so do plan your breakfasts and dinner ahead if you don’t intend to eat at the hotel. We tried the hotel dinner buffet(bec we had no choice) and it was really not worth the hefty price we paid for.

That said, the onsen here was awesome! It has open air as well as indoor, I will share more about it below but their onsen was my first public onsen experience. The price? about S$250 a night.

Apr 4-6 La Vista Fujikawaguchiko (pic credit: Booking.com)

One word WOW! This hotel impresses from the moment you stepped in. We were ushered into the lobby while a lady helps with the luggage(I’m very surprise that in Japan they do not have bellboys to do that, so far, it has always been a female who helped us with our luggage). Like always, I walked straight to the front desk to check in, but instead I was shown to a seat on the sofa and within seconds, another lady brought in 4 glasses of welcome drink and beckon us to have it. It was a warm citron drink which was simply lovely and delicious. My kids didn’t like it so I had 2 haha.

As I drank my lovely citron drink, another lady squatted next to me and start to explain the hotel facilities and details of my stay etc. After giving me a map, keys and all the instructions, she showed us how to get to our rooms. Ok we still have to take our own luggage to the room, there is no porter service here (or anywhere I’ve been in Japan so far). But they do make me feel like VVIP from the moment I enter so I would give their service a very high rating.

I booked the quadruple room with Mt Fuji View and my room looks identical to the pics shown above. It was a humongous room by any Japanese standards (57sqm). There are 4 twin beds, with 2 beds separated in another room. Toilet separated from the bath area, double vanity, shower area and a heart-shaped onsen bath as seen above. (just that I only have a small window to see Mt Fuji not the full length one as shown.) as well as a living area and a balcony to see fabulous Mt Fuji in. (Pic below: View of Mt Fuji from our room balcony)

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Full amenities are provided, standard and extra. They provided drip coffee which you have to grind the beans yourself, I thought it was a unique experience. Even though I don’t drink coffee I had fun grinding the beans for Alan. Below is the pic of the cute little grinder (Alan wanted to bring it home)

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Closet space is limited however as it is full with the Japanese robes they provided for you to wear in the hotel(if you want) plus 4 baskets of whatever is needed for you to go to the onsen for a bath. Slippers everywhere, they have slippers for the room, slippers for the toilet and bath and slippers that you can wear to walk around the hotel, multiply that by 4.

It is a really lovely place and especially good if you drive here, yeah parking is FREE! But if you don’t they do provide free bus shuttle to Kawaguchiko train station at specific timings. Price is steeped since its mostly half-board(ie buffet breakfast and fine dining dinner inclusive) so they charge by person rather than by room. So for our room type is more of a suite than a room, *drum rolls* its a hefty S$1,000 a night for 4 of us. But everyone is really pleased with the room and the food(fine dining would easily cost us S$100 a person per meal) and we see Mt Fuji whenever we look out our window. *consoles and justifies self* But seriously I still think its worth it.

PLAY:

Apr 3 Sumida River/Self-Drive/Hakone

On our return trip from Nikko, we stop at Tokyo Skytree station instead of Asakusa because its nearer to where we were to pick up our car for our next leg of our trip.  Pic below Tokyo Skytree.

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Since we heard the cherry tree started blossoming while we were away, we decided to walk to the nearby Sumida river to view it before heading south to Hakone. We stored out luggage at the train station and with the help of a female attendant standing at the station, we found our way to Sumida River which is only a short distance away.

The cherry blossom trees lined the river and it was bustling with people and from the pic you can see the locals enjoying snacks sitting underneath the cherry blossoms tree and by the river. The weather was cool enough to enjoy such activity under the sun.

After a brief walk, we took a subway a stop away to our car pickup location(I think it would have been better if we just walked there). I had to use google map to guide us to the Toyota Car Rental. Once there, the pickup was actually a breeze(details of car rental and self-driving experience covered in this post). We were given a Toyota Sienta which is a boxy mini wagon but it was sufficient for 4 of us. This little car will serve us for our trip to Hakone and Lake Kawaguchiko for the next few days.

Apr 4

Hakone Venetian Glass Museum

This place is less than 10 minutes drive from our hotel in Hakone. They opened at 10am, which is great for us since my family are not early risers. It is actually a very small garden like glass museum but the glass trees and exhibits are very pretty to look at. Alan adores this place and took lots of pics of the exhibits while the kids are enthralled with the ducks here. The souvenir shop is packed with enticing gifts for you to buy but I had to discouraged my kids from buying since it will be a hassle to bring home since its so fragile. Admission fee is 1,500yen per adult around S$19 for us at current exchange rate.

Bonus:

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This pic is taken from outside the glass museum as pointed by the car park attendant. The smoke that can be seen is where the famous Owadukani Boiling Valley is.

Ashinoko Skyline Drive

This is a toll road that cost about 600yen and its pretty short at around 10km but it is a very scenic road to drive. It basically runs parallel to Lake Ashi and has splendid views of the Lake and on a clear day Mount Fuji. Truly Mount Fuji felt it was right in front of us when we viewed it here. (except for some clouds which obstructed our view ^^;) We all love this short drive and we had a lunch rest stop along the way at a family restaurant with equally fantastic viewing points. Pics below show Mt Fuji view from different viewing points as well as resident goat in front of the family restaurant we ate. The food is good but most people seems to come here for the ice-cream though we didn’t try it.

 

Mishima Skywalk

This is a pretty new attraction, it is basically a 400m scenic bridge walk. It was very windy when we were there and it is very crowded. You basically lined up and walk across on one side of the bridge and make a return on the other side. Mt Fuji view is purported to excellent on good clear days, but it wasn’t on ours. There was to be a nice garden cafe to rest and eat in but we can’t find it and no one was really interested in it so, it was just touch and go for us. There was an event when we were there however, where you pay 200yen to buy a seed and then throw it over the bridge to help grow the trees there. We bought the seeds and brought it home haha.

 

 

 

Apr 5

My son’s friends were also in Japan at the same time, and they decided to join us today for a tour together on a tiny 7 seater car. We are a family of 4 and there were 4 of them so it was quite a squeeze. So I planned places to visit that are pretty short drives away.

Kawaguchiko Station

This is not an attraction but we came here to pick up the 4 boys who were travelling from Tokyo all the way here just to join us on a day tour in our tiny little rented car. But I would just like to say a few things about this station.

It is a small station BUT it is supercrowded! There are tourists queuing everywhere, either they are queuing for the tour bus outside, or they are queuing to buy train/tour tickets, or waiting for the next train etc. This is so since this is like the the stop where most sightseeing tours start for Mount Fuji and surrounds. And add all the surround hotel bus shuttles for the guests, this place is packed to the brim!

They have a carpark with free parking for first 30mins if you are there to pick up friends like us. And to add, you get to see Mt Fujisan in the background. It is a very busy, bustling place, when I look at it, I’m so glad we chose to drive.

kawaguchikostn

(photo credit on pic.)

Fuji Kachoen

It’s slightly more than half an hour drive from Kawaguchiko Train station to Fuji Kachoen. It is not a major tourist stop but more for locals which we really like. But we are really here for the owls. There are sooo many varieties and everyone adults and kids alike spent a good deal of time snapping photos after photos of these night creatures.

Above pics are just a few of the many that we’ve seen and there’s more. There were penguins/birds/bunnies/flamingoes and for most of them you can freely touch them and interact with them. The big boys and girl couldn’t get enough of them!

They have a bird show out in the open, yep you get to see Mt Fujisan as the backdrop too. They have an internal controlled garden of Begonias and other flowers that will bloom all seasons.

Admission at 1,100yen per adult is pretty cheap if you ask me, interaction with the owls like petting them or taking a photo is not free, its 500yen per person and only at specified timings. I would actually highly recommend this garden if you are self-driving here.

Ice Cave

I chose this cave as opposed to the wind cave nearby for 2 reasons, it has a shorter route about 7mins and ice cave sounds cooler than wind cave, bad choice. Although the route is shorter, it was way harder and more slippery. The guy who sold me the tickets at the entrance was very friendly and gave us discounts because we are foreigners. Then we were handed helmets. I thought the helmets were just pre-cautionary since we are entering a cave. Well they are not, they are NECESSARY! Alan bumped his head at least thrice and was thankful that we had helmets. The entrance to the cave was like any other caves we’ve been to, with steps leading you down, but as  we went in, it became slippery(ok its an ice cave) and narrower and narrower. I was right in front of everyone else and when I reach the point where it became so narrow where you’ll have to crouch/bend and use your hand to squeeze through, I was like standing there, thinking to myself, should I just turn back? But behind, the people were just coming through one by one so I had to tell myself I can do this and push myself forward. Behind me, I can hear voices moaning, “wait what is this?” “no I cannot do this” “this isn’t the kind of thing for me” ^^;;; the narrow part wasn’t that long but it seems forever as you try to navigate through it. My poor girl was so scared she cried. And the big boys some of them more than 1.8m tall actually made it through with much difficulty. Phew this was quite a challenge. I cannot tell you how much damage it made to my already weakened knees because of past injury, the pain persisted for a long while after this adventure. So if you are physically strong and brave, go ahead and try this if not, you can sit this one out or try the milder wind cave nearby. (Note: Sightseeing buses from Kawaguchiko station does not stop at ice cave but there is one that stops at wind cave.)

First 2 pics credit to: Mt-Fuji-cave.com and last pic credit to:GajingoJapan

Kawaguchiko Music Forest Museum

This is another pretty little themed garden very similar to Hakone glass museum only that is it music-themed. I printed the coupon for  a 100yen discount off the admission from the website only to find out later, that La Vista Hotel had a better discount for it. So if you are coming here and staying at La Vista, do get the discount pamphlet at the front office. Sightseeing buses from Kawaguchiko station stops here too if you are not driving.

There is a small musical fountain that comes alive every hours faithfully. The museum showcases music boxes as well as automated musical instruments. Try and imagine a mini-orchestra boxed up into one automated machine. It was a unique experience, they have many concerts held there, we went there late but we attended two demonstrations-one which they speaker spoke too fast and we couldn’t catch a single thing(good thing they had it flash out in English on a wall behind) and the second one, the presenter spoke so slowly that we almost want to fall asleep. But it is interesting to see all the rare music boxes as well as the automated musical instruments which most of them we’ll probably never come across with. Some of them are for sale at the shop but their prices are mind-boggling(because it is ancient and rare)

Admission price is 1,300yen which is pretty steep. That said, we also missed a fantastic music sand art show too. Sigh….

EAT:

Ok this is probably one of those rare times where you see me posting about food. Since we have half board at La Vista Fujikawaguchiko, ie dinner and breakfast was included but what I didn’t know was it was to be fine dining dinner. But wait don’t worry, you don’t have to wear formally for the dinner, not here, you can even don their in house robes and slippers and eat your fine dining dinner casually, yep you can. We stayed 2 nights here so we had French for 1st night and Japanese for 2nd night. They had 2 seatings for the dinner, one at 5:20pm(which is early) and the other at 7:50pm(which is really late). But they have snack/refreshments from 6:00pm if you are feeling hungry before your late dinner and also free ramen snack from 10:00-11:00pm if you are still hungry from the early dinner seating. For both, we took the 7:50pm seating and since we spent whole day out sightseeing, we didn’t took advantage of the free before dinner snack nor the free ramen midnight supper as we finished our dinner at around 10:00pm.

French dining course

For this course, the noodles/pasta and dessert was the best for me but the cold soup was memorable since I’ve never taken cold soup before.

Japanese dining course

For the first course, it actually came hidden in a big box(very much similar to those you see in Masterchef Australia mystery box haha). The sakura rice(second pic) was really special and nice, tempura was an assortment of vegetables which I can’t even name. The sashimi is fresh but still I love my desserts.

For the french course it took us almost 2 hours to complete, Japanese course was slightly better. Breakfast was buffet style with pretty good spread of Japanese and western selections. Can I say the croissants are really good? My girl loves their potato salad the most. And I have to say, everywhere we go in Japan, the tomatoes are the freshest and juiciest I have ever tasted.

EXTRAS:

Onsen Experience

I have to share this since this is my first public onsen experience after nth times of visiting Japan. As stated above, I tried the public onsen in Sengokuhara Hakone Prince Hotel. The onsen opens from 5am, since I am an early riser, I thought there would be few or hopefully none at all at the onsen bath so I would feel less awkward. I put on the robes provided and made my way to the female onsen. When I stepped in, there were already 2 person at the bath, okay not so bad. I quickly changed into the slippers provided, put my shoes in the locker then headed to the toilet to get ready. When I came out, there was another lady getting ready to go to the onsen and I realise I will probably be the only one who goes to the toilet to get ready. Because the locals just strip there outside the lockers ^^; (btw I still have my bathrobe on) I’m sure they knew I’m not local hahaha. There is an indoor onsen as well as an outdoor one (sample pics below provided by hotel since we can’t take any pictures in an onsen)

I was trying to decide which one to go since the temperature is still low, the outdoor one would be cold but then there was no one in the outdoor one so I bravely went to the outdoor onsen. It was brrrrrr COLD(outside temp is now about 2deg)…but the onsen bath was ahhhhh HOT(onsen bath temp is about 40-43deg). I dipped my feet in to let my body slowly adjust to the hot onsen while my upper body is expose to the brrrrr freezing cold. But all is BLISS when you immersed yourself fully in the onsen, I can feel all my muscles relaxing…its that good. I usually suffers from stiff neck and back muscles and it causes me great pain and discomfort. And in my trip to Japan, I couldn’t adjust to their low and flat pillows which puts a strain on my neck, I have to use pain relief gel for it. But after a soak(roughly about only 5mins) my body feels so relaxed! As swiftly as I entered in, swiftly and quietly I exited. It was an awesome experience and I think after this, I would dare to go to Japan public onsen again.(still under certain conditions like in the wee hours of morning hahaha) So do give it a try when you are in Japan and you are not the shy type.

La Vista has great onsen too, it even has individual private onsen bath for use without the need for reservation, as long as its vacant, you can just pop in and lock the door and enjoy the onsen to yourself without getting embarrassed. (Alan’s feedback was however that it is not as clean as the public onsen bath.) I did not use the public onsen bath at La Vista since I have a private onsen bath in my room with a view and I have my soak in my own privacy for the 2 nights I’m there. Even my son enjoys a good hot onsen bath soak. I am seriously considering to install a bath tub in my home after this.

 

 

Japan

Japan 2017 ~ Nikko

STAY:

Apr 1 – 3 Nikko Station Hotel Classic

I booked my hotel rooms through Booking.com most of the time since  I liked that I can book without making any downpayment and have the flexibility to cancel whenever my plan changes.  I chose Nikko Station Hotel since they are close to the train station, within walking distance from both the JR as well as Tobu Train stations. So whichever train you decide to travel to Nikko with, it is very convenient. The place looks exactly as the pictures posted.

I’ve booked the Western Twin room and got a good size 25sqm room though the smallest size for this room type is 18sqm. The rooms looks pretty new and seems to be have been recently renovated.

There is outdoor natural onsen in the hotel which Alan tried but I didn’t since I haven’t got the guts to do it yet. Alan’s been hooked to onsen bath ever since.

nikkohotelonsen

Try and book the package with the breakfast included, I didn’t and couldn’t find a place to eat breakfast around town the following day, the buffet breakfast has a good spread and is pretty decent. In general, the staff are also friendly though they speak limited English, it is not really that difficult to communicate with. The price is not cheap considering its a small hotel but because it was the weekend and its springtime peak season, it was still acceptable because of its fantastic location. Price I paid S$250 a night per room without breakfast.

PLAY:

I came to Nikko on my first ever trip to Japan back in early ’90s but due to inexperience in planning, I missed the last bus to travel further into Nikko National Park. I have wanted to travel back here ever since that day so I made sure this time I was all prepared.

I’ve booked my train/bus passes online with Tobu railway before my flight to Japan and collected the actual tickets and passes at Asakusa station in Tokyo. I chose Tobu because of the  Discount passes they offered which covered both train and buses in Nikko and Kinugawa plus one roundtrip from Asakusa/TokyoSkytree to Tobu Nikko. It is more economical than JR Shinkansen(unless of course you already have the JR pass which I don’t)

April 1st

Since I have late risers in my family, I had taken a later train from Tokyo to Nikko(around 11am), its a 2hrs train ride, and requires a transfer at Shimo-imachi station. (Note: Only Kegon goes direct without the need for transfers, check out timetable here.) It was still very COLD in Nikko, so happy that the hotel is only a short walk away. Japanese hotels are quite strict with their check-in time, which is around 3pm, but we are happy just to deposit the luggage and go for our lunch.

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Picture above is the Tobu-Nikko station, it is much bigger than the JR Nikko station(which is right across from our hotel).  The Nikko bus-stops are right outside and there are many eateries here serving lunch (yes lunch only) we found out to our horror that they are closed for dinner on the first day. But thankfully we found a supermarket nearby(details below) and I brought our travel cooker to cook instant noodles. But frankly, I want to throw away the portable cooker now since its cooking way too slowly LoL.

After lunch, we check-in, rest a bit before heading out to explore, only we didn’t really do much. We took the Nikko bus and visited as above Shinkyo bridge (just enjoyed it from afar) they charge you if you want to take a walk on it. ^^; And a nearby small shrine which seems deserted but has a lovely cafe on it. We didn’t explore much on first day since it was cold and everyone just wants to go back to the hotel to rest and warm up. Second pic is view of mountains from the hotel room.

April 2nd

With our passes and bus schedules, we head out into Nikko National Park today. There are a few bus routes to choose from, my aim is for Kegon Falls so we took the bus heading towards Lake Chuzenji and Yunomoto Onsen. TIP: If you stay at the Nikko Station Hotel like me, take the bus from the 1st bus stop which is right outside JR station opposite the hotel, you should be able to get seats on the bus which you want to since it is a journey of at least 40-50 minutes depending on where you want to stop first. If you are using passes, you have to show them to the driver when you board and when you disembark.Like buses here in SG, you have to press the bell for the stop you want to alight, and you alight in the front not the back.

The bus was full by the second bus-stop which is the one outside Tobu-Nikko station. It was also very noisy ~.~ Nikko is a popular tourist area so its kind of within expectations. Before we reach our first stop, the bus had to go through the Irohazaka Winding Road~it is as said winding road, take a look at the pic below(pic credit: JapanGuide) The bus kept turning and turning for like what seems to be forever. Be prepared for those with motion sickness like me and my son, we survived thankfully without throwing up. We are so awed in finding a middle-aged man running up this winding mountain road from our bus. *CLAPS*

irohazakawinding

Our first stop is Akechidaira Ropeway station which is near the peak of this mountain. Because the bus is so crowded(most of them are stopping at the next stop), we had to slowly make our way to the front to alight. No worries that the bus will move on before you alight for once you pressed the alighting bell, the driver will wait for all alighting passengers to alight before allowing other passengers to board. So yeah we were right at the back since we board first, and a whole bus load of people have to wait for the 4 of us to alight before moving on.

Above pic shows the Akechidaira ropeway station from the cable car we took. Alan says the cable car is ancient ^^; but it delivers us safely. With the passes you are entitled to some discounts which I totally forgot and did not benefit from. Second pic is of Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji taken from the top of the cable car station look out platform. The view is amazing and this is probably the only way you can get a shot of both sights together in one frame so I highly recommend a stop here before heading straight to Lake Chuzenji.

We waited at the souvenir shop until the time is near for the next bus to arrive. The next bus we took was not as crowded and just as the way we got up, it is the same winding road down. FYI the buses travels very fast even around the turns, so hold on tight. Our next stop is Lake Chuzenji, this is where most tourists will stop to see the main sights – Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji. Even with the sun up, it is still very chilly here or rather freezing? From the stop, it is a short walk to both sights in the opposite directions. But we were hungry so we had a lunch stop at one of the restaurants near the bus station. There is a whole row of restaurants for the picking. We settled into a restaurant run by an elderly couple since she beckoned us in. It has a heater inside yay! It’s good to seat near the heater in this situation. Be prepared to wait for the food, did I mention elderly couple? The elderly man served while the elderly woman cooked but it was delicious and worth the wait!

After filling our stomachs we walked to Kegon Falls first, close up pic below, I am thankful to finally fulfill my wish(laughs) and glad that there is water flowing even in this freezing conditions. And I have to mention the middle-aged man we saw running uphill from our bus made it here!Wow I am so impressed.

Then we head over to Lake Chuzenji which isn’t as pretty since the lake is not filled up as you can see. Because of the cold, no one wants to explore any further, hence we made our way back on the bus but don’t worry, the return journey does not goes through the winding Irohazaka road anymore. Thank goodness.

 

There are more to Nikko than just Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji, check out Nikko-Travel.jp

EAT:

Sorry I still do not have any food photos to share but I do want to share that breakfast and dinner choices may be limited in Nikko unless you eat early like 5pm for dinner. So it is a good consideration to have it included in your hotel accommodation if possible. If you are not lazy like us, you can always take the bus(good idea if you buy the pass) and travel a bit, I think we passed by restaurants and family marts on our bus route to Lake Chuzenji. For our second night dinner, we found a Izakaya restaurant but couldn’t have our dinner there because Christie was underage.(age limit:20years old). Fortunately, we found another also pub-like restaurant which is opened for us to eat.

Great Find:

Yummy Nikko Age Yuba Manju

These are a delight to have in such cold weather, made piping hot, its sweet and salty at the same time but tastes so good, the store is in the row of shophouses facing the Nikko bus stops. There is usually a queue but its pretty fast moving. Since I was too eager to eat it, I never took a pic, the pictures are from TripAdvisor, all credits to them.

Lion D’or Supermarket

nikkosupermarket

Surprise!surprise! We were surprise to find such a huge supermarket in Nikko while wondering around. It came to our rescue when we couldn’t find any dinner places on our first night in Nikko. It’s just about 10mins walk from our hotel.

Shabonnikkoten Coin Laundry

nikkocoinlaundry

Google map Japan has been the most useful app I used for this trip! It led me to find this coin laundry near my hotel(5mins walk) because I so desperately need to do my laundry since I only packed enough clothes for 5 days. It didn’t have the laundry detergent included but thankfully the supermarket has it, so we were able to do our laundry.

TIP: Since I didn’t want to lug my luggage back and forth, I tried Japan baggage delivery service for the first time. I repacked our bags into 2 small cabin bags for our 2 night stay at Nikko and sent 2 big luggage direct from our accommodation at Citidines Shinjuku to our next stay which is at Hakone. The staff at Citidines filled the form for me and it cost about S$30 for 2 big luggage . I would say the service was reliable and the luggage arrived safely and on time. Just make sure you also informed the hotel you are forwarding to that you are sending your luggage over, preferably a day before your arrival. Alternatively you can deposit them at coin lockers in train stations which is cheaper but you will still have to lug your luggage to the nearest train station first bearing in mind there may be stairs you have to climb.

Japan

Japan 2017 ~ Tokyo

STAY:

Mar 29 – Apr 1 Citidines Shinjuku Tokyo (photo credit: Citidines Shinjuku Tokyo)

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Booked the Studio Twin which is around 25sqm, a decent size with a small useful kitchenette to make simple breakfasts or for those hungry nights. It’s a pretty short walk from nearest subway station Shinjuku-Gyoemmae but for arrival day with all those luggages, it is only approximately about a 1,000yen taxi ride away. I’ve been here 3 times when I visited Tokyo, I liked the coin laundry on site which is really convenient if you want to travel light and not pack too many clothings.(detergent included in the wash machine too) Save those 100yen coins for these. Ask for travel adaptor from the front desk for those charging needs. It is near to many eateries and convenience stores, the 24h ones helps you find food anytime you need for eg Sukiya and Matsuya and your family mart and lawson’s.

For this trip, the main reason I stayed here again though was that it is within walking distance from Shinjuku-gyoen which has more cherry blossoms than Ueno park, yes I am here for the cherry blossoms! The rates varies widely depending on the season and how far in advance you book, book early for those FLEXI rates since you can easily cancel within 24 hours from check in date. Just a gauge, I booked it for S$250 a night per room, it easily rose to S$350 a night closer to the date since it was near the hanami season.

Apr 13-14 Airbnb

We did a quick one night stay on our stopover at Tokyo before our flight back to SG. It was a last minute decision so  couldn’t find a reasonable hotel to stay for the night. Thankfully, airbnb had a room at Shibuya where we wanted to be.

 

It is a cosy and compact apartment as posted on the airbnb website(link provided). It has 4 beds! for the 4 of us. It has a small kitchenette with a single stove and a small microwave and fridge. The toilet and bath(together) is terribly small. The main sitting and sleeping area is well renovated I would say but not the kitchenette and toilet. But we are only here for a night stay so it was more than sufficient for us especially the location was really good, walking to Shibuya station was easy and with so many shopping and eating places around, you won’t get bored. But I won’t recommend for long stay since it doesn’t have a washer/dryer in the apartment, a few days should be fine but you could easily find a coin laundry nearby I guess. Another plus is that the host is friendly and active in giving us updates and welcoming us to the place, it was a good experience overall. Due to the location, it is not exactly cheap, we paid close to S$300 a night for a very small apartment but it was still cheaper than 2 hotel rooms in Shibuya, I had to fork out S$600-800 for a hotel night stay.

 

PLAY:

The only reason why everyone is here during this season is simply because of the Hanami. I visited 2 gardens popular for their cherry blossoms ~ Ueno Park and Shinjuku-gyoen. And on my return trip from Hokkaido, I popped into Meguro River for some more cherry blossoms viewing before heading home.

Ueno Park Cherry Blossoms (30th March 2017)

Spring came late to Japan this year, the weather was still pretty cold. Despite a first cherry blossom budding early, and it was forecasted to be in full/peak boom during our stay-sad truth is, it was not. The park is crowded with lots of people and with only a few early cherry blossom trees blooming, imagine everyone wanting to take a pic with them. We just took a few quick shots and left the place.

Shinjuku-gyoen (31st March 2017)

We were happy here since there were more trees that were in bloom plus there were more varieties, although it is also far from peaking but there were more blossoming trees to feed our ‘hunger’ for viewing them. The garden charges a 200yen admission fee as opposed to Ueno park which is free. There is security check for bags at the entrance too. But the garden is huge and there’s lots of space to move around even if there were crowds there too. However, the tourists groups usually stick around the main entrance(I guess because they have a limited time?) so go further into the garden and stroll leisurely you will enjoy it much more, we even spotted a wedding couple taking photographs.

Meguro River (13th April 2017)

Meguro River is a very long river, the easiest to walk to it is alighting at Naka-meguro station on the Toyoku line/Hibiya line. We stayed at Shibuya on our return trip so it was just one convenient stop away.

The cherry blossoms are still very much in bloom although the petals are beginning to fall. Unfortunately the night lighting has ceased so we weren’t able to view it with the night lightings but it was still a very beautiful sight and especially with the crowds gone, we found ourselves strolling endlessly along the river banks, stopping at every bridge to snap photos. Our unending thirst for the blossoms clearly shows. There are many cafes dotted along the meguro river for these beautiful sights, you could just popped in any and sipped a drink while enjoying the sight.

Side-Tracked:

Cat Cafe Mocha Akihabara

We were walking aimlessly around Akihabara after lunch(and after a disappointing Ueno park) when we decided we needed a rest stop and by chance we were right in front of this cat cafe, so we decided to pop in. The interior is beautiful and so are the cats. It charges 200yen for 10 per minutes and drink is optional, do note though the drinks are free flow if you pay 350yen for it, it is however vending machine drinks. I thought there was a minimum stay of 30minutes so we paid 600yen each but it seems others left quite quickly so I guess you could just stay for 10minutes if you wish. But for my kids, I think they could stay in there for as long as they wanted if they could. There were not many people which makes it good for us, we find ourselves alone with the many cats in the cafe. There is a TV and some manga to read(if you can read Japanese lol). It was a good resting stop.

You pay only when you exit, you have to keep track of your own time which you will be given upon entry. Sterilise your hands upon entry, you have to remove your shoes and wear those provided. TIP: If you are going when its cold with your coats/jackets, please remember to remove them!(else you will have a hard time removing all those cat furs). Lockers are provided for the shoes/bags/jackets. If you love cats, you could stop by and laze the afternoon away.

catcafemochaaki

EAT:

Frankly speaking we find places to eat as we move around, so we never really plan on going to a specific place to eat and we eat at economical places around Tokyo, especially around stations where it’s always order, eat and go kind of places so I seldom take food pics whenever I travel unless its really good/special. So you will find that I will not talk too much on this topic in my travelogues.

This is only the first post of my Japan 2017 trip, there are more to come. ;D