November 26, 2019

7D Autumn Road Trip (Nagano, Niigata, etc.)

In Japan, October and November is the time for fall foliage, autumn food (chestnut, pacific saury, rice, etc.), the sea of clouds phenomenon and hot spring.

For my early November trip to Japan this year, I decided to do a road trip mainly covering the Koshin'etsu (Nagano and Niigata prefectures) and Southern Tohoku (Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures) regions, because the autumn colors at these regions would be at their peak.

We were thankful that the places we decided to go to were not affected by Typhoon Hagibis which struck 2 weeks before our trip. However, some of the mountain roads were undergoing works due to landslides, so traffic was slower due to the merging of lanes at some parts of the journey, especially in Nagano prefecture(長野県).

We rented a car from Tokyo for 7 days and paid for the Japan Expressway Pass (20,400 yen). Considering that the toll fees incurred was around 35,000 yen, the pass provided around 40% savings.

Day 1: Haneda Airport to Shirahone Hot Spring(白骨温泉)

The first location on our list was Kamikochi in Nagano prefecture, as autumn colors here typically peak in late October, which meant that we were late. We drove for 4 hours to Shirahone Onsen nearby where we stayed for the night, stopping for lunch at Koufu(甲府)in Yamanashi prefecture(山梨県)on the way. The mountain roads leading to Shirahone Onsen were narrow. Enjoyed soaking in milky white hot spring in the cold weather! Awanoyu ryokan (Japanese inn) is famous for its outdoor bath with autumn colors.

Day 2: Kamikochi(上高地)and Hirugami Hot Spring(昼神温泉)

Kamikochi is a popular resort in the Northern Japan Alps. Shirahone Onsen is about 10 minutes-drive to Sawando bus terminal, the closest one can get to Kamikochi by private transportation, as private vehicles are not allowed to drive into Kamikochi. We left our car at the bus terminal and took a 20-minute bus to Taisho pond(大正池)in Kamikochi. 

From there, it was about 4 km walk to Kappabashi(河童橋), which took 1-2 hours. This route is recommended for non-hikers or those pressed for time. We managed to enjoy beautiful autumn foliage although it was already November 1. Weather was good and the temperature was slightly above 10 degrees Celsius, comfortable for hiking in a jacket. I rarely hike, but surprisingly enjoyed Kamikochi very much. For hikers, it would be nice to visit Kamikochi together with nearby Norikura Kogen(乗鞍高原)in October.

After Kamikochi, we had delicious soba for lunch, specialty of Nagano prefecture. We then drove 2 hours southwards to our ryokan at Hirugami Onsen in the same prefecture, which was on the way to Nagoya city where we would be meeting our friends for lunch the next day.

Day 3: Heavens Sonohara, Nagoya city(名古屋市)and Shimosuwa Hot Spring(下諏訪温泉)

Hirugami Onsen is near Heavens Sonohara, one of the places to enjoy the sea of clouds phenomenon in Nagano prefecture. We were very thankful that we managed to see it the next morning, despite only having one chance. However, we were a little late and caught the sunrise in the gondola on the way up, instead of together with the sea of clouds at the peak. Did not foresee that we needed time to scrape ice off the windscreen and heat up the car. Unexpected drama early in the morning!

Another place in Nagano prefecture to enjoy the sea of clouds phenomenon is Sora Terrace, which is probably more convenient for those intending to focus on the Koshin'etsu region.

We drove 1.5 hours to Nagoya for lunch with friends, then drove back and further up to Shimosuwa Hot Spring (2.5 hours) in the middle of Nagano prefecture, which was on the way to our next destination-- Karuizawa. On hindsight, we should have booked a hotel instead of another ryokan, as a third consecutive night of kaiseki (Japanese multi-course) dinner was simply too much for me :P Still, the ryokan stay was really enjoyable, so no regrets~

Day 4: Karuizawa(軽井沢)

We drove to Karuizawa the next morning. Nagano is very mountainous, so driving from one town to another is more time-consuming than it looks on the map. Plus it was the Sunday of a long weekend, so the 1.5 hour-drive turned out to be 2.5 hours due to traffic congestion. The traffic at and near Karuizawa was horrendous. Judging from the car plates, it seemed that not just those living nearby but also Tokyoites flocked to Karuizawa to spend the long weekend.

It was my third time to Karuizawa, but the first time by car and during holidays. After visiting Shiraito Falls(白糸の滝)which was rather underwhelming, we queued for parking at a free area near Kumoba Pond(雲場池)and our lunch destination. The wait at our lunch venue was 90 minutes (!!), so we left our names and visited Kumoba Pond in the meantime. The autumn foliage here was stunning, enhanced by the reflection in the pond.

We covered the remaining places in Kyu-Karuizawa(旧軽井沢)on foot as all the roads were congested and finding parking was difficult. It seemed that taking public transport would not be much better, as the buses were packed and trapped in the jam as well. Bicycle rental might have been the best option, provided there was enough supply. I guess one thing I learnt was to avoid Karuizawa during holidays.

We left Karuizawa earlier than planned, yet reached our accommodation for the night later than expected. (Also because we accidentally spent too much time at the Yokokawa Service Area on the way, one of the best I have been to.) We drove for 2+ hours to a pension (Western-style family-run accommodation) in Minakami Kogen(水上高原)at the north of Gunma prefecture(群馬県). The Western-style 4-course dinner with wine was a nice change from the kaiseki dinners on previous nights.

Day 5: Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku(宝川温泉汪泉閣), Dragondola, Kiyotsu Gorge(清津峡)and Yahiko Park(弥彦公園)

The next morning, we visited Takaragawa Onsen Osenkaku ryokan which has the largest outdoor bath(露天風呂)in Japan and is famous for autumn colors. I had wanted to stay there, but was attracted by the good reviews for the nearby pension, so decided to visit Takaragawa for day onsen instead. Entry is 2000 yen and comes with rental clothes for the mixed-gender outdoor bath. To welcome foreign guests, the ryokan has made it compulsory to wear the clothes provided.

(Google image)

It was an incredible experience, enjoying panoramic autumn foliage while soaking in hot spring in cold weather. My only issue was the cleanliness. As there are no showering facilities at the outdoor bath and the indoor and outdoor baths are not connected, many visitors enter the outdoor bath without showering. Heard that the mixed changing area was quite dirty and smelly too. Recommend showering at the indoor bath before and after enjoying the outdoor bath.

The plan for the rest of the day was to check out autumn foliage in Niigata prefecture(新潟県), which was on the way to Yamadera in Yamagata prefecture. We first headed for Dragondola, the longest gondola in Japan. This gondola connecting 2 ski resorts is famous for its autumn views, but it does not seem to be that famous among locals (none of my Japanese friends have heard of it). 3000 yen for a round-trip was rather expensive for a gondola ride, but the seemingly endless autumn colors throughout the ride justified the cost. It was very cold (6 degrees Celsius) and photos were not great due to the downcast weather, but saw a double rainbow on the way down!

Next, we drove an hour to Kiyotsu Gorge, one of Japan's top 3 gorges. I was not impressed with the views there, but it was interesting how the Kiyotsu Gorge Tunnel combined art with natural scenery. The tunnel runs 750m through the gorge and has 4 viewpoints. It would be nice if there was no need to step into the water to see the view at the last viewpoint.

Our last stop for the day was Yahiko Park, 2 hour-drive northwards. By then, the sun had set (around 5 pm), which was just nice as the Maple Valley in the park would be lit up in the evening from late October to late November. It turned out to be rather disappointing, partially due to the lighting. Too few lights, yet the lighting was too strong. The photo below is after touch-up.

Our accommodation for the night was a business hotel in Niigata with free parking of course. For dinner, we went to an izakaya nearby recommended by the hotel staff. We ordered Niigata specialties (seafood, rice, sake) and the dinner was so good it made me want to return to Niigata for a fourth time~

Day 6: Yamadera(山寺), Naruko Gorge(鳴子峡), Ginzan Hot Spring(銀山温泉)

The next morning, we drove 3 hours to Yamadera in Yamagata prefecture(山形県). Yamadera is a scenic temple located in the mountains northeast of Yamagata city. The temple grounds spread across a steep mountainside and it takes 1000 steps to reach the top for panoramic views. The climb was easier than I thought, but the view was also less impressive than expected. Still, it was an enjoyable experience and helped to burn some calories.

Next, we drove 1.5 hours to Naruko Gorge in northwestern Miyagi prefecture(宮城県), famous for its autumn colors. The views were gorgeous!

That night, we stayed at Ginzan Hot Spring. Similar to Kamikochi, it does not allow private vehicles into the area. Thanks to that, the design of the ryokans and the compactness of the town, Ginzan Onsen retains the vibe and scenery from the Taisho era. It is very atmospheric and beautiful both in the day and night. There are also ashiyu (foot baths) along the street, but they are very hot!

Day 7: Back to Tokyo

The next morning, we checked out the area before embarking on the 5 hour journey back to Tokyo, stopping for lunch and short breaks on the way of course. We also dropped by Tendo Hot Spring Rest Area(道の駅天童温泉)and bought a lot of Tohoku souvenirs.

After returning the rental car, we stayed in Tokyo for another 3 days. The weather in Tokyo was more autumn-like, but we already started missing the scenery and spaciousness of rural Japan.

I suppose there may be better ways to arrange the destinations I covered, however, there was a need to consider the peak timings for autumn colors at the various places. Those who prefer to cover less may want to choose between the Koshin'etsu region and the Tohoku region. There are also regional expressway passes worth considering.

However, if the intention is to make use of the 7D nationwide JEP, long traveling distances is necessary to make it worth, just like the nationwide JR pass. Somehow the places I want to go at a particular time of the year always happen to spread across different parts of Japan, so going for the nationwide pass is usually easier and more cost-effective for me. Note that not all car rental shops provide the JEP option.

December 09, 2018

Delicious Ramen along JR Yamanote Line

I'm a huge fan of Ramen, to the extent that I can eat it every day! It is umami-packed, filling, affordable, varied, can be found everywhere (especially true in Tokyo), rarely disappointing, usually not time-consuming (even if there is a queue, turn over is fast) and truly a comfort food during cold weather.

I enjoy trying different types of ramen when travelling around Japan. As with many other food, Tokyo is a ramen hub, gathering famous ramen from different prefectures. Also, there is a good mix of those with long history and new innovative ones ready to set the latest trend.

The ramen scene is constantly evolving and there are simply too many excellent ramen to choose from. Here I will only focus on conveniently located ramen joints near stations along the JR Yamanote Line, the railway loop line connecting most major stations in Tokyo.

1. Rokurinsha(六厘舎), Tokyo station(東京駅)

Rokurinsha is the long-queue ramen joint at Tokyo Ramen Street in the underground mall of Tokyo station. It offers the perfect version of the most typical type of tsukemen (dipping noodle)- gyokai tonkotsu(魚介豚骨, seafood and pork bones).

I have dined there a few times over the past few years, and quality has been consistent so far. Noodles are always hard and chewy, dipping soup is always hot, rich and savoury with a good balance of gyokai and tonkotsu. After finishing the noodles, wari-soup with yuzu taste is provided upon request to dilute the broth for drinking.

Rokurinsha has other outlets, however the quality may not be consistent. I tried the one at Haneda Airport once and found it quite disappointing.

2. Yakiago Shio Ramen Takahashi(焼きあご塩らー麺たかはし), Shinjuku station(新宿駅)

Shinjuku is known as one of the battlefields for ramen. There are numerous good ramen, especially in the Kabukicho area, from famous chain ones (Ichiran, Nagi, Tenkaippin, etc.) to new innovative ones. One popular ramen joint is Yakiago Shio Ramen Takahashi (main outlet), which has a perpetual queue at anytime of the day, partly because of the limited seats.

The soup of its signature Yakiago Shio Ramen, made using grilled flying fish, other seafood and pork bones, is light yet robust with smoky flavor. After finishing the noodles, it is recommended to add rice to the remaining soup to enjoy the food in a ochazuke (tea over rice) way.

Yakiago Shio Ramen Takahashi has other outlets in Tokyo, and has expanded overseas (Xiamen) this year.

3. Ichiran(一蘭), Ueno station(上野駅)

Probably no tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen lovers have not heard of this famous ramen chain from Fukuoka. Some people may find it too touristy (long queue), or that the portion is too little (expensive), but the high quality of the soup and noodles cannot be denied.

Noodles are thin and chewy, soup is rich yet not smelly. Personally think the highlight is the "secret" spicy red sauce. It complements the tonkotsu broth extremely well and is unlike commonly used spicy oil. Other things I like about this ramen chain include the customization (personally agree with what is recommended), the consistency among outlets and the elimination of human interaction (just focus on the food!).

Ichiran has many outlets (some operating 24 hours) all over Japan and has currently expanded overseas to Hong Kong, Taiwan and New York. I tried it in Taiwan once and the taste was exactly the same. Recommend to have it for breakfast for those who want to avoid long queues. You have the whole day to burn the calories later too!

4. Vegepota Tsukemen Enji(べジポタつけ麺えん寺), Ikebukuro station(池袋駅)

Ikebukuro is another ramen battlefield. The one I will recommend here is Tsukemen Enji, 4 minutes walking distance from Ikebukuro station's north exit, though the one I have tried is the main outlet outside Kichijoji station. (Ratings on Tabelog are currently about the same for both outlets.)

Tsukemen Enji's dipping soup is a blend of 10 vegetables, pork bones and seafood, topped with some vegetables and yuzu, hence popular among females and those who are health conscious. The taste and texture of the dipping soup was perfect for me. There are also a few types of noodles (udon-like or soba-like) to choose from.

5. Nakiryu(鳴龍), Otsuka station(大塚駅)

This second Michelin starred ramen joint is 6 minutes walk from Otsuka station. I have not queued for it yet, but was already impressed by the standard of the cup noodles version of its signature tantanmen selling at 7-11 stores. Tantanmen(担々麺)is the Japanese version of Sichuan Dan Dan noodles.

The soup is rich, flavorful and not overly spicy. Although sinful, I could not resist finishing up all the soup. Even for those who do not usually appreciate tantanmen, do give it a try, you may be pleasantly surprised like me.

Shinagawa station(品川駅)also has a Shinatatsu Shinagawa(品達品川)Ramen Street 200 m from the Takanawa Exit, with around 10 ramen joints catering to all types of preferences.

September 05, 2018

Unkai (Cloud) Terrace in Tomamu

The Unkai (雲海, cloud) Terrace in Tomamu has been gaining popularity in recent years. It is commonly on the itinerary of visitors to Central Hokkaido(北海道)in summer, together with flower fields in nearby Furano(富良野). This year, I finally managed to make my first attempt to see the unkai.

(Photo from Hoshino Resorts Tomamu website)

Seeing the unkai requires much luck and effort. The weather conditions have to be right for the right amount of clouds to form at the right altitude. Also, it is better to reach the terrace early (4+ am). In fact, the gondola to the terrace only operates in the early morning.

The Unkai Terrace website provides unkai forecast for the next morning at 3 pm, and updates the unkai status slightly before 4 am on the day itself. It also collates the unkai occurences for the past 7 days. According to the website, possibility of seeing the unkai is only 30% to 50%.

In order to maximise the chance of seeing unkai, we planned 3 nights stay in Tomamu. It is a small resort town with minimal facilities (no convenience stores and petrol kiosk). Due to convenience and lack of other choices, most Unkai Terrace visitors would book their accommodation with Hoshino Resorts Tomamu (operator of the Unkai Terrace). Shuttle bus is provided from the resort to the gondola station. However, we chose a cheaper option- Pension Ing Tomamu, 5 minutes driving distance from Unkai Terrace, since we rented a car (more about this accommodation later).

Despite our plans to stay for 3 nights, weather forecast for that region of Hokkaido was bleak for the whole week starting from the first day of our stay. It was even more vexing to find out that there was unkai the previous morning. If only we arrived a day earlier :(

For our first morning, unkai forecast was 30% and it was predicted that the terrace would be "in the cloud". Temperature would be lower than usual (less than 10 degrees Celsius) because of strong wind. For such cases, it would still be okay to visit the Unkai Terrace (especially for those who are only in Tomamu for one day) to experience how it's like, even though there wouldn't be a nice view as everything would be foggy.

At 4 am the next morning, we refreshed the webpage and the terrace was indeed "in the cloud". We still decided to go to the terrace, since weather forecast for the next two days seem to be getting worse, which meant that the gondola may be suspended altogether.

It was quite cold up on the terrace. Free jacket rental is available at the terrace for those who came unprepared. There are a few decks to enjoy the view and a cafe to buy beverages and snacks. It is also possible to trek higher when weather is good. Excluding the trekking and gondola ride (13 minutes), a visit to Unkai Terrace should take less than an hour.

After visiting the Unkai Terrace, we drove an hour to Furano for flower fields, melons, dairy products and wine. In early August, only late-blooming lavenders remain (Farm Tomita and Kanno Farm), but there are still many other types of summer flowers, such as marigold, dahlia and statice.

For our second morning, the unkai forecast dropped to 20% and weather at the terrace would likely be bad. When we refreshed the webpage at 4 am the next morning, the gondola was suspended from adverse weather, which meant that the Unkai Terrace would be closed that morning. So we went back to sleep :P

As we had "trapped" ourselves at Tomamu for 3 nights, we were limited to places within 2 hours drive from Tomamu, as it wouldn't make sense to go somewhere too far and spend most of our time in the car. After considering a few places, we decided to go to Kushiro(釧路), around 2 hour drive away.

We went to Lake Akan(阿寒湖)and took a sightseeing cruise to see marimo, had good sanmanma (charcoal-grilled mackerel on rice) at Kushiro Fisherman's Wharf MOO and kattedon 勝手丼(choose-your-own-topping seafood bowl) at Kushiro Washo Ichiba (market), then visited Kushiro City Red-Crowned Crane Natural Park for tancho(丹頂)cranes, endangered species that Kushiro is famous for.

There are even more places to visit further east, such as the other lakes in Akan Mashu National Park, Abashiri(網走), Shiretoko(知床)etc., but we would have to leave them for next time~

That night, we checked the Unkai Terrace webpage for next morning's forecast and it was about the same as the previous day. Even though it wasn't unexpected, we were still disappointed. Nevertheless, we set our alarms to wake up at 4 am just to confirm no unkai.

The next morning, to our surprise, the status was updated to "unkai is occurring". We were in disbelief! After refreshing the webpage a few times and certain that we were not dreaming, we dashed out of the house in 10 minutes. By around 4.30 am, we were boarding the gondola.

No thanks to my "itchy" hands, I refreshed the webpage again, only to see the status updated to:


Should there be no more unkai by the time we reach the terrace, it would really have been a total waste of time, effort and money...

After the ride that felt like eternity finally ended, we rushed out to the terrace, and were so glad that the unkai waited for us! We finally saw the view we had been longing to see! However, the clouds were shifting quickly, sometimes blocking the view of the mountain range afar.

Thanks to the "in the cloud" experience two days ago, we could truly appreciate how it is like to see the unkai clearly, and know where best to invest our limited time for the nicest view- Cloud Walk.

At 5.15 am, it started drizzling and everything became foggy. The mountain range could no longer be seen. We decided to leave the terrace as it seemed like we had already caught the best of what could be seen that day. When I refreshed the webpage again upon reaching our rental car, indeed, the status had been updated to "in the cloud".

We were really thankful to be able to see the unkai, despite the short duration. I could not imagine reaching there half an hour later, or if we had given up and not woken up to check the status. Also, there was no unkai for the next six days.

Some things to take note of:
  • Time is precious when it comes to chasing the unkai. The clouds are always moving and the movements are hard to predict. If you are lucky enough to see the "unkai is occurring" status, try to reach the gondola station as fast as possible. In other words, get dressed quickly and find an accommodation that is very near to the terrace. Forget about staying in the Furano region, it's too far. Also, the gondola may start operating earlier than the time stated on the website (which was the case for us). Get ahead of the queue, which may take as long as 30 minutes.
  • For those who do not stay at Hoshino Resorts Tomamu, do not buy gondola tickets (1900 yen) in advance. Few people queue up to buy tickets as most people stay at Hoshino Resorts Tomamu and are entitled to ride the gondola for free. Also, the gondola may be suspended due to bad weather.
  • Never give up hope! It is common to see 20% or 30% possibility the previous day. Always check the status again at 4 am on the day itself.
  • What I saw was "adverse-weather unkai". There are also "Pacific Ocean-grown unkai" and "Tomamu-grown unkai". Regardless of type and duration of unkai seen, it would be recorded as "unkai (has occurred)" on the webpage. Other status would be "cloudy" (in the cloud), "gondola suspended" (extreme bad weather), "sunny" (no clouds) or "rainy" (bad weather). 
  • There will be new decks coming up later this year, such as Cloud Bar and Cloud Bed. More information on Unkai Terrace's website.
Where to stay:

The most common and obvious choice would be Hoshino Resorts Tomamu.

Those who drive, are more budget-conscious and are okay with hostel or Japanese minshuku/pension standards may want to consider Pension Ing Tomamu. One room for 2 pax is 17,000 yen per night, inclusive of Japanese-western dinner. We liked the location, food, service and availability of washing machine. During dinner, which starts promptly at 6.30 pm, the owner Natsui-san provides information about the unkai terrace and answers queries from guests. However, toilet and bathrooms are shared and there is a need to pay for gondola tickets.

At night, there are fireworks (8.30 pm, lasts for 5 minutes) at Hoshino Resorts in summer. Also, Chapel in the Water by Tadao Ando is open from 8.30-9.30 pm.

Of course, there are other places to see unkai in Hokkaido and other parts of Japan. Though in comparison, Unkai Terrace requires less physical effort and regular status updates are provided by meteorologists.

Related post:
My most unforgettable trip- Takeda Castle Ruins