Travelling JAPANOur Top Tips
WE TRAVELLED ACROSS JAPAN IN A CAMPERVAN, FROM TOKYO TO KYOTO AND EVERYTHING IN BETWEEN
JAPAN AMAZED US IN SO MANY WAYS. FROM THE DEEP WINTER SNOW OF HOKKAIDO TO THE SPRING TIME CHERRY BLOSSOMS OF KYOTO, WE TRULY FELL IN LOVE WITH THIS COUNTRY.
This blog tells our story of a 6 month adventure living and working in Japan. From our 5 month season in Hokkaido, to our 2 week campervan travels around the main Island. We didn’t get to see half of what we wanted to, but we thought you’d like to hear about our adventure and hopefully pick up some tips and tricks to travel Japan yourself.
It’s hard to know where to start with a trip like this. Our recent campervan travels are at the front of my mind, but our Japanese journey began several months before. We decided to leave the Alps behind for a winter season in the powder capital of the world, Niseko. Packing up and moving is something we are very used to, but this time it felt a little different. We knew this trip would be a long one, at least 5 months, and we had no idea what to expect when we arrived. For sure, we had spent many a winter season working abroad, but not somewhere as culturally different as Japan. Still, we were ready for the adventure and couldn’t wait to see what our new home had in store for us this time.
The first few days were a blur, settling in, finding our feat, learning the do’s and don’ts… we very quickly realized we were ‘not in Kansas anymore’ (as the saying goes). Something as simple as grocery shopping, became the longest and most difficult task we had undertaken in a long time. The food in Japan is so vastly different to things you would find in any European supermarket, and even if we did know what any of it was, we couldn’t read the packet to check flavors or ingredients and we even struggled to work out the price. It took 15 minutes of intense google translate assisted chat with the most patient supermarket attendant ever, just to locate the mayonnaise, and even after finding it, we just stared blankly at the 8 different options until the supermarket attendant gave us her recommendation. Kewpie mayo, it was so worth the effort to find it, the Japaneese LOVE it. There is a kind of cult around it, with groups of people who carry little bottles everywhere they go to eat it on everything! We did finally get the hang of supermarket shopping, realizing that the trick was to stick to cooking Asian food, any thoughts of cooking our European favorites went out of the window, to be replaced with an incredible new menu of Asian delights.
A few days in we found a local car dealer, Yoshi, he had been recommended to us by some friends who‘d been to Niseko before, and we rented ourselves a tiny “Kei” car… Everything in Japan really is tiny, from the supermarket trolleys to the cars and vans, if you are short you will love it! The Kei car was more like a scooter with 4 wheels, but we were assured it would last us through the winter with 4-wheel drive and a good heater (surprisingly it did, despite me driving it very slowly into a snow drift one day (sorry car), but that’s a story for another blog).
With our basic needs sorted we quickly settled into life in resort, finding the local yoga studio (Powder Yoga – thanks Kanami for an epic season of yoga), the climbing wall, the quickest routes to the slopes and best places to park and grab a snack. There really is just too much to put it all into one blog, but if you’re planning a trip and want any advice then do get in touch (email@example.com) and we will happily tell you all of our Niseko season tips and tricks, from where to eat, to where to sleep, ski and even where to do some Karaoke! Our lesson partner and Toni’s emplyoyer during our season, Nisko Black, offer lessons and backcountry guiding.
Our favorite days in Niseko were spent waking up early to take the first lifts, riding some fresh powder for a few hours and then heading down for some lunch at our favorite sushi spot in neighboring town Kutchan (Yotei Maru). Followed by an afternoon of work at Graubunden coffee shop or the Green Farm Café with our co-working pals, and in the evening a yoga, climbing or skate session followed by a nice hot outdoor onsen. Ooooo yes, an onsen. If you haven’t heard of them before you are in for a treat. Picture this, its 6pm and snowing lightly, it’s about -10 degrees outside and you have done a hard day of exploring, exercising or working. You step outside in nothing but a tiny towel into a dimly lit natural hot bath, steam is rising from the 38 degree + water and the fairy lights are twinkling in the snow topped trees. Yes, it is real, and yes we did go there almost every day. Best of all, entry to this winter wonderland spa costs but a few pounds, including a towel and use of toiletries.
So, our season was spent doing so many of our favorite things. Eating incredible food, exploring new resorts, mountains and backcountry terrain. Testing out old tricks and learning new ones. Niseko is literally a snowpersons dream, a playground of fluffy, powdery backcountry terrain just asking to be enjoyed. We hiked the local volcano (Mt. Yotei at 1800 meters), and many other smaller peaks around the area too. We took the first lifts for the freshest powder tracks and as it started to warm up, we hiked the park features trying to land the latest and greatest new tricks. It was a winter of dreams come true. Between visits from family and friends, we got to enjoy the normality of having a home and a kitchen and a sort of routine, something you totally take for granted when you are not out on the road.
As the season drew to an end and the sun started to melt away the 12+ feet of snow that sat outside of our house, we started to plan some warmer travels around the South Island of Japan. And so we come to our next adventure… 12 days campervanning around Japan’s hottest spots, and just in time to catch the epic cherry blossom season.
DAY ONE: TOKYO
We started out in Tokyo where we slept in the coolest B’n’B in Akihabara, the Electric Light district. Called Studio 81, it offered 4 rooms each individually designed by local artists. Not cheap, but certainly worth it for a quirky and cool experience. The rooms had washer dryers, little studio kitchens and a co-work space downstairs. Being freelance too, we loved the concept of the rooms being used to pay for the office space for small businesses to work out of.
We visited some of Tokyo’s top tourist spots, including the Imperial Palace and a quick spot of lunch at the Tsukiji Fish Market (sushi of dreams). After lunch it was time to pick up the campervan, our home for the next 11 nights. We arrived in a sleepy street in suburban Tokyo where we found the camper waiting for us underneath a cherry blossom tree. We couldn’t believe how tiny it was… a camper version of our Kei car from the winter. Thankfully Toni did fit inside, and surprisingly our suitcases did too. So, we bundled ourselves in and headed off on our adventure. We were lucky enough to get lost pretty much immediately on our way out of Tokyo, which meant we accidentally drove along the most beautiful cherry blossom tree lined river, which hundreds of lanterns hanging from the trees. It was so beautiful. We drove the 3.5-hour journey to Hakone and pitched up camp by the side of Lake Ashi. A spectacular Lake with views of Mt Fuji from the nearby ropeway.
DAY TWO: HAKONE + MT FUJI
Our first night in the tiny van was a comfortable but chilly one. We had underestimated how cold it would be at that time of year and were not well equipped to be camping out. But the trusty heater did provide us with some warmth and all in all we slept well.
We couldn’t find anywhere open to eat breakfast, so we just settled for some rice triangles from the local Lawsons convenience store. Just a quick side note here to talk about rice triangles, or onigiri as they are better known in Japan, possibly one of the greatest inventions of the 21st century, I am unsure how I managed to get through life pre rice triangles. They are as literal as they sound, a triangle of rice, stuffed with some filling. Personally the tuna or prawn mayo ones topped my list of favourites, and wrapped with a crispy layer of seaweed to keep it all together. Now if you had asked me a few years ago to eat something like that I would have laughed in your face, especially for breakfast (sorry hun it’s eggs and avo on toast for me please). But honestly, they are a game changer, ask any of our visitors, who all left with a new favourite food (and for just 80p a triangle)! Okay back to the important bits… so we took the Hakone Ropeway to the very top and ogled at the view of Mt. Fuji. Now, we had lived all winter under a very similar looking volcano, but the sheer size of Mt. Fuji was very impressive. Also impressive were the natural hot springs and sulphur steam erupting from the rocks surrounding the area. The smell was actually overpowering in places, but a really cool sight to see.
In the afternoon we headed further south still, coming across so many temples and other amazing sights. That evening we got lost going down the world’s smallest windy road of death on the way to our first washing pit stop, Sedoya Onsen… remember the Onsens we talked about earlier? Well they have them in the South Islands too, making Japan a pretty great place to travel in a camper as you can just rock up and take a bath and shower at any time of the day. Some are open from 5am to 1am and offer everything from massages, to chill out rooms and even restaurants. The Japanese really do have it spot on. This first Onsen stop was dreamy (an outdoor area with fairy lights was the highlight as I lay back and watched the stars butt naked.) Males and females are separated in most Japanese Onsens, unless in touristy areas, so we often bathed alone. One thing to watch out for if you are traveling to more local spots like we did, is your tattoos. They are prohibited in most local Onsens and we had several tricky moments trying to find somewhere that would let us in.
DAY THREE: NAGOYA
A stop we hadn’t particularly planned on visiting, Nagoya turned out to be a surprise gem. We wandered around Nagoya Castle and the cute city streets, taking in the normality of children’s play areas and the coffee shop culture. We found a local skate park where we both expended a little energy, and then we stuffed our faces with some of the Nagoya delicacy, Tenmusu. That night saw our first Onsen disaster, we were turned away as we asked if they let people in with tattoos. At our next attempt destination, we almost had the same problem, but a very kind attendant let us use the shower (but not the shared bath) as they took pity on us travelling in a van! Clean and content we drove to Lake Biwa to spend the night before heading to Kyoto the next day.
DAY FOUR: KYOTO
Kyoto is the Japan you will see when you imagine the country in your mind. All of the stereotypical images of Japanese culture that you can imagine, define the city of Kyoto. It was by far my favourite place from the whole trip, so much so that we actually spent 3 days here! During our time in Kyoto we visited most of the famous tourist spots and few ‘off the beaten track’ places too as we tried to hunt down one of our old friends who lived there.
Top of the list for recommendations is the Fushimi Inari Shrine. It can be super busy but it is definitely worth the visit. The whole shrine took us around 3 hours to walk around as we climbed up into Mt. Inari, walking through endless passageways of orange torii gates donated to the shrine by businesses and individuals. It is well worth the walk around the whole loop, as you climb higher most tourists tend to give up and you will find yourself all alone in the most beautiful Japanese forest surrounded by the incredible shrine architecture.
We headed next up to an area in the north of Kyoto, the Murasakino Minamifunaokacho district. Here we found our old friend who runs a local bakery, we chatted about life, ate great food and visited a tiny local onsen. One of my favourite evenings of the trip was spent in a local bar here, sitting on the floor and snacking on Japanese delicacies. That night we slept in a local car park, which turned out to be a temple car park un beknown to us, and we were politely asked to leave the next morning. Ooops. Lesson learned, find somewhere to sleep before it gets dark.
DAY FIVE: KYOTO
A another action packed Kyoto adventure was on the cards for our 5th day of travels. We visited the Arishyama Bamboo Groves, walked along the banks of the Katsura river and marvelled at the cherry blossom. This was another picture postcard moment, with many people dressing as Geisha girls to visit the local temples. We also stopped by the Tenrijyn Temple where we bumped into a friend from Nisko (Hi Pablo), what a small world!
That afternoon we headed to Kyumizuclera Monzenkai Temple to watch the sunset. We were rewarded with a spectacular view of Kyoto city as the sun went down, followed by the lighting up of the temple as it got dark, making this one of our top spots of the trip. Not to mention the worlds happiest parking attendants who waved us off on our way as we left, not sure if they were laughing at us or with us in our tiny camper van, but either way we left with happy hearts and smiley faces.
That evening we drove to Osaka, being in the more built up local areas we were really struggling to find tattoo friendly onsens, but we did finally find one that let us in. Unforuntaly we underestimated the size of Osaka and realised quickly on arrival that parking would be hard to come by in this mega city. We decided to sleep close to the castle which was the only thing we wanted to visit in this area.
DAY SIX: OSAKA
We woke up having barely slept from the traffic noise all night (imagine parking on the busiest roundabout you can think of central London, then times that by 50 and you will be somewhere close to the volume of traffic). Still, we laughed it off and got our favourite rice triangle breakfast, wandered over to the castle and ate it with a lovely view.
Later as we tried to leave our car park for the night, we also realised we had massively miss calculated the price per hour for parking (you know, not actually being able to read a word of Japanese), and so we ended up paying the equivalent of a night in a mid-market hotel for the privilege of our terrible car park nights sleep! Again, we laughed it off, but quickly got ourselves out of Osaka. I think our problem was having the camper, as the city itself has lots of cool things to offer, but we were looking for a more for a traditional experience and coming from Kyoto made Osaka seem all too big, busy and expensive. Not a recommended stop if you are travelling by camper. So, we escaped to the local beach, but being April everything there was closed (we were still laughing), it was nice to feel the sand on our toes on what turned out to be a 26-degree sunny day! Especially after a winter of our skin barely seeing daylight. It’s all about the little wins.
We left the beach and headed towards our next stop, Koyasan. A tiny mountain town where Budhism first began in Japan. We wanted to spend the night in a local Budhist temple, but it was too late when we arrived, so we headed back down from the mountain into the local town to try and find an onsen and some dinner. Google sent us down a road called “The Fruit Line”, it was honestly the most tiny and terrifying road we had ever been on. There were sheer cliff drops on either side, with barely enough road for our tiny van to fit on, never mind a normal sized car. Oh and did I mention it was pitch black. We realised later that there was sign that we had missed (as it was dark) which said in very large bold warning letters, and in English, “Your sat nav has made a mistake, please turn around and use the alternate route.” It was a mistake I am so glad we made, it was amazing to see the tiny forest houses that lined this long mountain road. We could see into the lives and houses as we drove past. Luckily, we didn’t come across any other cars as I actually don’t know what we would have done. We made it down into the town and stopped at a local ramen restaurant where the super kind locals helped us locate an open onsen and even gave us a free ticket for the spa. You really can’t beat Japanese hospitality.
DAY SEVEN: KOYASAN
We headed back up to Koyasan and to the local tourist information office where they helped us to get a reservation at one of the 126 temples located in the 6km long Town. Our temple was called Dai-en-in. Koyasan is a stunningly beautiful heritage site that is well worth a visit. We went to the two main temples where Buddhism was founded in Japan, Danjo Gran and Kongobuji and also the Grave yard where Kobo Dashi, the founder of Japanese Buddhism, was buried. I don’t think I will ever forget the size of the trees, the forest surrounding Koyasan was absolutely breath taking.
During the day we also attended an Ajikan Meditation session, and later that night at the temple, we were treated to a 7-course traditional temple dinner in our kimonos. The experience was amazing, we even copied Japanese sutras out onto the religious paper while overlooking the beautiful zen garden, imitating how the temple monks live. However, it was freezing. Being a temple they had very basic heating systems and the town itself was high up in the mountains, meaning the air temperature was a lot lower, but despite being very cold, all in all we had a great night’s sleep and would recommend the experience.
DAY EIGHT: KOYASAN + NARA
We woke up and attended the morning Buddhist fire ceremony where the resident monks perform their daily prayers. After we had breakfast, which really wasn’t the most appetising (thankfully I had some hidden rice triangles in my backpack, so all was okay with the world). After checking out we packed up the van and headed to Nara for a stroll around Nara park with the wild deer. The park was beautiful, especially at that time of year with the cherry blossom trees in full bloom. We brought some food for the deer and all was fun and games until they started to chase us (one actually bit Toni which you can imagine I found pretty funny).
By this point in the trip we were both feeling a little overwhelmed by the constant travelling and by the sheer volume of things there were to see and do. Our recommendation for anyone planning a camper van tour of any kind would be either to have a less packed itinerary or if you do just have to see everything (like me) then to extend your trip to include some rest days.
That night, feeling a little exhausted, we chose to have some pamper time. We had a wonderful massage at the nicest local onsen with some really lovely staff. One thing we could not fault about Japan was the hospitality, everywhere we went people just wanted to help and to make life easier, and it was always done with a smile.
DAY NINE: THE BIG DRIVE
We had driven very far south by this point (and spent a small mortgage on road tolls, again recommend more time, less highways), and were nearing the end of our trip, so we decided to make the big journey back towards Tokyo in one hit. It was an 8-hour drive, but we picked a good day to travel as it was raining and miserable weather. So, we reminisced on the journey so far, stopped to buy lots of snacks, got lost a few times and listed to our favourite music. We had a shower in a motorway service station onsen, watched a bit of Netflix and had a yummy roadside dinner. We drove the last leg of the journey until we reached Chiba, the little surf town, our final destination before heading back into Tokyo.
DAY TEN: CHIBA SURF
We hung around Chiba checking out the local surf spots and enjoying some well-earned rest time, Toni got out his cameras to shoot the local surfers and we watched the waves roll in. We didn’t do much but just be in Chiba, which was a welcome break after the days of continuous travel. If you are a keen surfer then it is definitely worth checking out as it can have some pretty good waves most of the year, but if you’re not into surfing then there isn’t much to do. The south has some much nicer beaches if you want to catch some rays.
DAY ELEVEN: TOKYO AGAIN
We woke up to the sound of the ocean in our beachside parking spot and had our rice triangle breakfast watching the waves again. After a slow morning we started the final drive into Tokyo ready to return our trusty campervan. It was sad to say goodbye after so many laughs and good times, but we were ready for some stillness for a while.
We checked in to the One Hotel, another great find, with well equipped smart rooms and views of the Tokyo Skytree Tower. We headed up the Skytree to see the breath-taking night time views of the city. After standing on the glass floor and feeling my stomach drop we decided it was time to head down for one last dinner in Japan. Wandering the streets, we were so lucky to come across Sisimaru restaurant. A traditional style Japanese fusion restaurant, we sat on the floor and enjoyed some of the best food of the whole trip.
And just like that, it was time to go home. Our epic trip to Japan had crossed two seasons and created countless amazing memories. We didn’t get to see half of the places we would have like too. And this blog probably doesn’t cover half of what we actually did. But our time spent in this incredible country will never be forgotten. If you’re thinking of heading to Japan and need any tips or travel advice then drop us an email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh and if you hadn’t guessed already, obviously we are going back for the 2019 / 20 winter season! We would love you to join us on our next adventure!
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