Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 12 – Matsumoto & travel to Tokyo)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 12 – Matsumoto & travel to Tokyo)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 12: December 7

Last day of 7-day JR pass

We checked out of our Nagano hotel in the morning and left our luggage with the hotel. We stayed in Nagano not to see the city, but as it is a major city and transportation hub from where it would be easier to travel to Yamanouchi (yesterday) and Matsumoto. I choose to settle in these kind of cities because access to food and hotels is better and cheaper, and we can easily just leave our luggage and go on a day trip without lugging it around to a different city every night. Of course, given the opportunity I would have loved to see Nagano itself, but there are only so many days available for travelling…

We headed to Matsumoto for the afternoon because I wanted to see Matsumoto Castle, one of the most highly regarded original castles in Japan. I eventually want to see every single castle in Japan. From Nagano station, we took a limited express train to Matsumoto station. Limited express trains take just under an hour but regular trains will take over an hour. From Matsumoto station, it takes about 10-15 minutes to walk to Matsumoto Castle. The city streets are nice to walk through on the way to the castle.

The castle grounds of Matsumoto castle are really pretty and incredibly peaceful to walk around. Matsumoto castle is indeed beautiful, with its large moat and bright red bridge.

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We also went inside the castle. As with all castles, the floor is very cold in winter. The ceilings are low and the stairs are very steep and narrow. I really hate climbing up and down those stairs.

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After spending some time at Matsumoto Castle, it was time to head back to Nagano. We returned to the hotel, retrieved our luggage and headed on to Tokyo, the home stretch of our trip! Of course this was timed so all our longer distance journeys would fit in the 7-day JR pass. From Nagano station, we took a shinkansen to Oomiya station (Saitama), and transferred to a train for Shinjuku station. During the shinkansen ride, we experienced an earthquake. The shinkansen actually stopped (and we were profusely apologised to for the delay) and for the first time I witnessed Japanese passengers talking on their phones on public transport. The whole situation was very calm and I never felt very worried, though (different story for my mum). I know these things happen in Japan. I’m told that earthquakes need to be pretty serious for the shinkansen to stop. I don’t think there was severe damage or injury where the earthquake originated from (quite far away).

At Shinjuku station, we had some difficulty finding the appropriate exit to get to our hotel… as always. No surprises. I am used to this by now. We stayed at Hotel Sunroute Plaza Shinjuku. Luckily this is quite a major hotel and most train staff or officers on the roads would know it. It is about five minutes walk from Shinjuku station (if you exit from the correct side!). It is a large, modern hotel, with a lot of tourists. Hence it is quite English and Western-friendly in their service and amenities. We stayed in a simple and small room, which was clean but showed some times of age. I actually chose to return to this hotel during my most recent trip to Japan, so I think that says a lot about it. I find it the perfect hotel for Tokyo since I prefer to stay in Shinjuku, and the location, rooms (and amenities) and prices are exactly what I’m after. Because it is such a major hotel, airport shuttle buses will also stop here.

It was getting late so we walked down the street and decided to eat at a sushi train place. It was one of those fast and cheap sushi train places. My mum doesn’t really like this kind of sushi (like the actual Japanese kind, haha), but I enjoyed myself.

japan trip 2012 tokyo food sushi train

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 11 – Yamanouchi Jigokudani Monkey Park – Snow Monkeys!)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 11 – Yamanouchi Jigokudani Monkey Park – Snow Monkeys!)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 11: December 6

Sixth day of 7-day JR pass

I never ended up writing my travel journey from this day on, so everything is quite hazy.

Today was another big day! We left early in the morning, following instructions I had gotten from the staff the night before, taking the Nagaden train to Yudanaka station. From Yudanaka, I then took another bus to Kanbayashi-onsen, from where it is over half an hour walk into the forests of the Jigokudani Monkey Park. Buses on other lines will stop at Monkey Park bus stop, which is much closer. I had planned to take the Nagaden bus straight from Nagano to Kanbayashi-onsen, but when we looked it up, it was not running so hence had to take the two modes of transport. Please note the Kanbayashi-onsen bus stop is rather confusing. There is a stop A, B and C and depending on whether you arriving at or departing the park, it will be from a different bus stop. I recommend asking the friendly staff at Yudanaka station. Even if communication is difficult, they have plenty of English explanations and maps that make it very clear.

Once we got to the Kanbayashi-onsen bus stop, the walk through the forest (there was some snow) to the Jigokudani Monkey Park was straightforward and not at all tiring. There were very few people around although I’m not sure if that was because it was not yet peak winter season, or if people just don’t visit as much during the winter season – I suspect the former. The park/forest is famous as it is inhabited by wild Japanese Macaques, who enjoy bathing in the hot springs, and are now encouraged to do so for tourism. Nearby towns are also onsen (hot spring) towns. The major attraction is the man-made pool where all the monkeys gather and bathe in, or wander around (they are fed there). While they are nicknamed “snow monkeys”, they will bathe in the hot spring all year round although are encouraged with food to do so in warmer months. Personally, I think it would be most scenic during colder months and especially if there is a lot of snow. Yamanouchi does get a lot of snow as the climate is quite cold – the largest ski resort in Japan is in Yamanouchi.

This will mostly be picture heavy. I took hundreds in the hour I was there, while my fingers were basically freezing off. The monkeys are incredible, with such delicate and expressive features. It was fascinating watching them socialise and relax. Coming here was really a big one to tick off my bucket list. I highly recommend this day trip even though it is quite out of the way.

japan trip 2012 jigokudani snow monkeys 01

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japan trip 2012 jigokudani snow monkeys 13

My mum was freezing and I wouldn’t stop taking photos. Sorry, Mum! I’m pretty sure I was there longer than everyone else. The main attraction really is quite a small area. In the office area, there are a lot of photos of the monkeys that other people have taken. There are some epic ones.

We walked back to the bus stop. We met a girl travelling alone. I want to say she’s from the Netherlands, but I can’t be sure after so long. I was happy to be able to help her with some directions! The buses were infrequent, the area rural and very quiet. We barely saw anyone. I would be very worried to be lost there! We took the bus back to Yudanaka station, and then the train back to Nagano station. Back at Nagano, we headed back to our hotel and found a restaurant close by. We were sitting in our own private and enclosed little dining table area, and it was probably the best meal we had during the trip! It was a great find.

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Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 10 – Kawaguchi-ko to Tokyo to Nagano)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 10 – Kawaguchi-ko to Tokyo to Nagano)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 10: December 5

Fifth day of 7-day JR pass

Following on from the previous day where we weren’t able to get a clear view of Mt Fuji all day because of persisting clouds, I hadn’t expected much waking up on our last morning. We were checking out in the morning to head off to our next city.

I woke around 6:30am to have a peek outside. The skies (and our view) were beyond perfect.

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 30 mt fuji

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 31 mt fuji

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There were really no words to describe the feeling. We had come all that way, the stars had lined up for us, and we were treated to this beautiful view during our last few hours in Kawaguchiko. It was probably the happiest moment in Japan.

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After a long time of taking photos and admiring, we went back to sleep because it was still too early. When we woke properly, the sun had fully risen and it was the most glorious day with clear blue skies. I can’t not include another set of select photos in broad daylight…

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 35 mt fuji

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 36 mt fuji

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 37 mt fuji

One thing I hadn’t touched upon was how everything is “Mt Fuji” themed in this area. For example, the complimentary bread we received from the hotel? Mt Fuji. The trains? Mt Fuji! (But I expect no less, because it’s Japan.) Fuji-san is the region’s pride and mascot, as it should be!

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After checking out of the hotel, we took the hotel shuttle to Kawaguchiko station. From there we took the bus all the way to Tokyo station (around two hours). At Tokyo station, we had some high drama.

We arrived around 11-12pm, and our shinkansen out from Tokyo station to Nagano station was at 3pm. The plan was to eat some lunch and have a look around the shops. My mum needed to use the restroom, and there was a sign for one on the lower floor, so I waited at the stairs with our luggage while she went downstairs. I waited over half an hour, worrying whether she had gotten lost or if there was just a ridiculous queue. The problem was once I left my post, we would both officially be lost and looking for each other. Finally I decided it had been long enough and it was time for me to look for her. The coin lockers weren’t far away so I stored our luggage away, and went down the same stairs. The restrooms were very close so I couldn’t imagine how she could have gotten lost. Nonetheless I decided she must have logically taken stairs to go back up to the floor we started on (she couldn’t have forgotten which floor we were on). I decided I just have to walk around on that floor. I mentioned previously about Japanese train stations, but to reiterate, major Japanese train stations are HUGE, often over several floors, and seem to be arranged something like a grid or labyrinth. There are countless exits and arcades. Now Tokyo station was newly renovated (completed just over a month prior) and it was a monstrously complicated station, probably one of the worst in Japan. I had absolutely no idea where I was walking. My only hope was that as long as we were on the same floor, we might eventually bump into each other. I literally had no choice as there was no other way of contacting her. Surprisingly I wasn’t panicked yet, just walking around and keeping my eyes wide open. I planned to continue aimlessly like this, hoping for a miracle, before resorting to figuring out how to get the train station to put out an announcement for me.

Actually after about half an hour, somehow my ears picked up my name over the announcement system. This was already kind of remarkable as I wasn’t paying attention to the Japanese but somehow caught my poorly pronounced name. I guess there’s something about name recognition! Unfortunately I didn’t hear the announcement at all. I went to a gate staff and tried to explain that I had lost my mother and had heard my name over the PA system but needed to know what it said. He called someone (I guess wherever the announcements come from) and got a location. He got a map and circled the JR East Travel Service Centre. Despite holding a map, I still had trouble finding it and needed more help along the way. Eventually, I arrived, all flustered, at the centre… BUT WHERE WAS MY MUM?!

I was telling the staff that I thought my mum would be here and that I had lost her. When they realised I was “the daughter”, they got excited, telling me they had taken my mum to the other building where the bus stops were (probably since we arrived by bus they would try to find me there). The staff contacted their staff to bring her back while I waited. In the mean time I explained how we had gotten separated. I also confirmed out shinkansen was at 3pm, and they were relieved because my mum had told them it was 2pm (it was already 1:30pm) and they had been most worried about that (haha!). Then my mum arrived and we were reunited!!! I think you can imagine how incredibly relieved we were. We thanked everyone profusely and left to retrieve our luggage. My mum explained how difficult it had been communicating to anyone in English and how long it had taken for someone to vaguely understand that she had lost someone and they eventually dropped her at the JR East Travel Service Centre. The staff actually assured her that since the newly renovated Tokyo station had opened, heaps and heaps of Japanese people were also getting lost every day and ending up there! I was proud of my mum for holding it together and figuring out a way!!!

We ended up grabbing some conbini food, found our way to the shinkansen platforms and just waited for our shinkansen. We didn’t feel like trying to tackle the labyrinth of Tokyo station anymore. The shinkansen to Nagano station took around 1.5 hours. At Nagano station, as always we spent some time trying to figure out which exit to take for our hotel. A kind man noticed our struggles, knew our hotel and pointed to and exit and that it was straight down the road (and visible).

In Nagano, we stayed at Hotel Sunroute Nagano. I’ve stayed at many hotels in the “Sunroute” franchise. This hotel is located on the main road that leads from Nagano station and only about a couple of minutes by foot (the majority probably just crossing the road), so it is super convenient. It’s not it’s own building, but occupies the upper floors of a small building. The room was very standard for Japanese business hotels, incredibly compact and simple, but efficient and very clean. I really liked this hotel.

It was already night time, and we were so beat from a day of travelling (and the drama) plus we would be getting up really early the next day, so we just went downstairs and ate in the first restaurant. We both ate doria (Japanese rice gratin).

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Returning to the hotel, I spent some time getting help from the staff with some transportation queries for the next day (the lady was incredibly helpful, printing out maps and timetables and double checking dates when things were/weren’t running)…

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 9 – Kawaguchi-ko)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 9 – Kawaguchi-ko)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 9: December 4

Fourth day of 7-day JR pass

This would be our only full day in Kawaguchi-ko, one of the prime locations for viewing Mt Fuji as close as possible. It is located right at the base of the mountain, but Mt Fuji is still notoriously hard to see due to clouds. The best chances are early morning and late afternoon. We awoke early and had a peek outside our balcony around 6-7am, when it was already light. We could see that our location and view was incredible, but unfortunately there were a lot of obstructing clouds.

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We slept a few more hours. The fog seemed to clear a bit and it looked like it would be quite a lovely sunny day, although the top of Mt Fuji was still not clear enough, with clouds decorating its top.

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We had arranged with the hotel the previous night that we would take the free hotel shuttle bus to Kawaguchiko station at 10am. There were a couple of other hotel guests who also rode the bus, getting off at attractions along the way. We spotted fruit markets on the route, so when we got to the train station, we actually decided to walk back and buy fruit (we were in dire want of fresh fruits and vegetables, which are astronomically expensive in Japanese cities compared to Australia, and also hard to find for tourists like us). We actually ended up walking along shopping streets of the town, buying the fruit, vegetables, and other foods and snacks. We also passed a shop closing down which had unwanted kitchenware placed outside free to take. We picked up a pretty bento box. There was some lovely china we wanted as souvenirs too but with all our travelling, we didn’t want to risk breaking anything in our luggage. We basically walked the entire length from the train station BACK to the hotel with our loot to drop it off. Gosh, we are so weird!

As the weather kept improving and it was so sunny, we decided to change plans and walk around the river and cross the Kawaguchiko bridge, which cuts across the lake to the other side. We could only intermittently see glimpses of the top of Mt Fuji, as light clouds persisted all day.

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The below shows past water levels of the lake!

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For lunch, we found a restaurant and ate houtou noodles, a popular regional dish of Yamanashi, featuring udon noodles in a miso-based soup.

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Then we walked back towards Kachi Kachi Ropeway, which ascends to a summit point on Mt Tenjo. This is a popular spot for viewing the lake and Mt Fuji. While we weren’t blessed with a perfectly clear day, it was still beautiful. The folktale of Kachi Kachi Yama is represented everywhere with tanuki and rabbit characters.

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japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 20 kachi kachi ropeway

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 21 kachi kachi ropeway

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 22 kachi kachi ropeway

This tanuki hanging from the ceiling was in the bathroom! So cute.

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japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 24 kachi kachi ropeway

As if we hadn’t walked back and forth enough, we finally walked back to Kawaguchiko station, taking a train to Shimoyoshida station. It’s a quiet rural town, and it was so lovely to walk through – barely any people around. I really adore walking through these kinds of towns. Roughly ten minutes from the train station by foot is Arakura Sengen Taisha, which houses Chureito, the pagoda from which iconic and popular photos of Mt Fuji are taken from. We weren’t to get any amazing shots, as we didn’t have beautiful autumnal or spring foliage and we didn’t have clear skies. During better days, there would be people stationed here with tripods, attempting to capture the perfect shot. There was only one person perched on the hill with a tripod when we were there. Nonetheless I’m sooo glad we went. It was breathtakingly beautiful and I was very emotional to be able to visit after so many years of pining.

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 25 arakura sengen taisha chureito

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 26 arakura sengen taisha chureito

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 27 arakura sengen taisha chureito

As you can see, the sun was setting fast. After a while we walked back to the Shimoyoshida station and trained back to Kawaguchiko station. By then it was pitch black and despite being frozen to the bone, I really wanted a soft serve ice cream. I had never seen as many Japanese soft serve flavours as there in Kawaguchiko but I had yet to try any despite seeing flavours galore all day. I chose the blue rose and vanilla. I almost died of cold eating it but gosh Japanese soft serves are so delicious!

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 28 food soft serve

We trekked back to the hotel in the dark, and just chowed on the fresh goods we had purchased earlier that day, while relaxing and watching TV. It was actually quite nice to just chill in our room. Since the hotel didn’t know our dinner plans though, I didn’t know when they would come to lay out the futon. So I called up to request it, and a kind man turned up and made quick work of it.

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To end the day, we also had a jumping spider emergency, resulting in my mum and I both screaming and hiding in the corner of the room. I had to call the front desk again and request for bug spray. It was manic, trying to spray the spider while it kept jumping around and NOT dying. Eventually we were able to get rid of it though I’m sure we both almost fainted from all the screaming and jumping and stress. What a night.

Then next morning we would be leaving. Would we finally see a clear view of Mt Fuji?

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 8 – Hakone, Kawaguchi-ko)

Travel: Japan Trip 2012 (Day 8 – Hakone, Kawaguchi-ko)

See: Japan Trip 2012 itinerary and summary

Day 8: December 3

Third day of 7-day JR pass

We packed up and checked out of the hotel pretty early, ready to catch the first cable car. The staff helped me with figuring out how to get from the hotel to the bus stop where we would board a bus to Kawaguchi-ko later in the day, but it involved a number of buses and it wasn’t worth it. So they booked a taxi for us for when we would come back for our bags later in the day. We only had the morning plus an hour or so to explore Hakone! We took the cable car to Sounzan station and we continued to use our Hakone Free Pass (valid for two days) purchased the previous day.

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Unforunately I hadn’t expected that the ropeway from Souzan station would not be operating yet (too early), so we had to wait about half an hour – whoops. We took the ropeway to Owakudani station, which is where we had visited the the day before but the weather was too bad.

Owakudani is an active volano zone area featuring a lot of hot springs and hot sulphurous fumes. It is a short walk from the ropeway to the many steam vents and bubbling pools, where the “black eggs” we purchased the previous day are boiled. There are also hiking paths you can take up the mountain or down the mountain to the lake. Currently, there is no access to Owakudani and it is closed to visitors due to volcanic gases.

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japan trip 2012 hakone 04 owakudani

The weather was just as windy, foggy and drizzling as the previous day! There was almost no visibility.

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We then hopped back on the ropeway to head to Togendai-ko station, which is at the northern end of Ashino-ko (Lake Ashino). We decided to take the roundtrip sightseeing cruise to Hakone-machi, Moto-Hakone (historical old towns) and back to Togendai-ko except we would remain on the boat. We didn’t have a load of time so we wouldn’t be getting off and exploring the two historic towns, although that would have been a great option. The roundtrip cruise in this way would take about one hour. Also, the clouds began to clear, the rain and fog disappeared and the sun appeared! We couldn’t believe our luck!

japan trip 2012 hakone 07 lake ashinoko

japan trip 2012 hakone 05 lake ashinoko

japan trip 2012 hakone 06 lake ashinoko

Being outside on the boat was incredibly cold and windy. We saw glimpses of Mt Fuji at some point too. The weather continued to clear up, and on the ropeway back, we could see Mt Fuji quite clearly (Mt Fuji is actually still really far away from Hakone though).

japan trip 2012 hakone 08 mt fuji

We could also see Owakudani better while travelling above than the two times we had visited. The angry fumes were really cool.

japan trip 2012 hakone 09 owakudani

We made our way back to the hotel, grabbed our stuff and waited for the taxi. The taxi driver took us to the bus stop, which was around 10-15 minutes of driving through windy mountain roads. He was a super friendly man and we had a nice chat. He had visited Kawaguchi-ko just two weeks ago and visits almost yearly. He dropped us off at the Hakone Sengoku Annaisho bus stop as requested. Shortly, the Odakyu Hakone highway bus arrived and we travelled on it to Gotemba station. Beyond Gotemba, our Hakone free pass was no longer valid. From Gotemba station, we had to take a very long route to cross some tracks to get to the bus stops (literally almost ten minutes). From there we took a bus to Kawaguchi-ko, which was an hour of windy country roads. I had planned the transport times for the journey between Hakone and Kawaguchi-ko according to the bus timetables.

Kawaguchi-ko (Lake Kawaguchi) is the most easily accessible of the Fuji Five Lakes at the northern base of Mt Fuji. The Fuji Five Lakes area are the best and closest places to view Mt Fuji, and also from where you can climb Mt Fuji.

Arriving at Kawaguchi-ko station, we stocked up on snacks and also used some paid internet. The hotel didn’t have internet in the rooms and we wanted to send some messages home. We took a taxi to Mizuno Hotel. It was a ryokan-style hotel and our name was on the welcoming board outside!

Mizuno Hotel is a slightly old hotel, sitting high up on a hill, some 2km away from Kawaguchi-ko station. Walking is a little bit tiring (because of the hill) but doable once you are familiar with the orientation (we would mostly be walking around Kawaguchi-ko the next day). Because it is high up and located close to the river, our room had an unrivalled view of Mt Fuji on the other side of the lake. This is a true selling point of the hotel. Our room was simple, not incredibly well maintained, and just passably clean. Overall the hotel felt really old and a little run down, with gaudy and chaotic decorations (particularly on the ground floor). There was meant to be free wifi in the lobby, but we were not able to connect, and the staff couldn’t figure out why – I put it down to our non-Japanese devices.

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We decided to have sukiyaki in the hotel’s restaurant, not wanting to repeat the sad dinner from the previous night. There was an incredible amount of food (almost too much) and well worth the price. At the end they asked if we wanted more vegetables. We wished we had known, because we love our vegetables and never got to eat enough in Japan, and I wouldn’t have stuffed myself trying to finish all the meat. And then at the end they asked if we wanted more beef! So maybe the whole meal was all-you-can-eat and we didn’t realise, haha!

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japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 03 food

japan trip 2012 kawaguchiko 04 food shabu shabu

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In ryokan, staff will come around during dinner time (when guest’s are usually out) and lay out the futon. When we returned from dinner, our futon were laid out for us.