Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Mt Fuji Sightseeing around Hakone

Mt Fuji from the top of Mt Kintoki (Hakone, Japan)
What better way to wake up than hike up a mountain to have an amazing view of Mt Fuji from the top?  Hmm... I can't think of any!

Fuji-Hakone Guest House... definitely recommend it
to anyone traveling in the area!  Very friendly
English speaking staff.
Amanda and I spent the night in Hakone at a little guest house.  We decided to do the traditional Japanese tatami room sleeping on futon mats on the floor.  Surprisingly it was very comfortable and quaint.  We had our own private outdoor and outdoor onsen.  It was perfect after a long work week!  Hakone brews their own "organic" beer, and of course Amanda and I found it!  We were just walking down the street when I noticed a beer bottle with Fuji printed on it sitting in a cooler.  And literally the cooler was on the side of the road just like every other vending machine!  And also, just like every other town in Japan, it had some sort of shrine and temple.

Traditional Japanese tatami room
Our own private little onsen (hot spring)

Mt Kintoki, Hakone
Summit time for our morning hike... no big deal!
The next morning we hiked up Mt Kintoki (1213m high).  It was a little harder than we were expecting with all the mud from the ice melting.  When we got to the top, we were greeted with a spectacular view of Mt Fuji and Lake Ashi.  There was just so much to take in up there, I wish we could have spent all day up there!  But there was still a lot to be seen in Hakone, so we had to make our way back down.  Too bad all the older Japanese guys were flying by us on the way down because apparently we weren't prepared for the steep, muddy trail.  Oh well, at least we didn't bite it!  Thank God!

A Japanese lady had us sign the book of everyone who
made it to the top of Mt Kintoki.  Kinda cool looking
at all the different languages in there!
Lake Ashi from Mt Kintoki
After the hike, we explored the rest of Hakone.  Think of a train, bus, cable car, gondola, and pirate ship... yes, we had it all!  We went from downtown Hakone to Gora to Owakudani, Lake Ashi and ended in Hakone-machi.  The gondola took us up to Owakudai, a volcanic area with sulfuric steam and warm rivers.  Our onsen the night before was filled from this volcano.  Next we boarded a pirate ship (don't ask me the meaning of the pirate ship in Japan, because I'm still trying to figure that out) and sailed across Lake Ashi passing by a very famous view of Mt Fuji and the Hakone-machi tori gate.

View of Mt Fuji from Owakudai with the sulfuric steam
coming from the ground.
Lake Ashi
I love this picture from Owakudani
One of the most famous views of Fuji and its lakes.
hanging out on the pirate ship on Lake Ashi 
Hakone shrine
Hakone shrine
trying out the Japanese pajamas they gave us at the hotel

Friday, February 18, 2011

Nagano's Matsumoto Castle & Snow Monkey Park

Kayla, Kristin, Tatum and I in front of the moat at Matsumoto Castle

The insanely steep stairs inside the castle.
I can't believe the samurais had to run up and
down these in armour without falling!

There is more to Nagano, Japan, than just skiing.  Nagano is also known for Matsumoto Castle, a 500 year old five-story castle.  This castle is very unique in its architecture.  It's one of the only castles in Japan with the main color being black while most of the castles are white.  The black color gave the castle its nickname "Karasujo" (Crow Castle) and the brooding color was designed to sow fear in the hearts of any approaching attackers.  Matsumoto Castle is built on flat ground and has a large moat as a means of defense.  The castle was not designed for permanent residency, purely for military purposes.  The insides of the castle were very different from what I was expecting, with vast, open wooden rooms.  The samurai mostly lived on the bottom floor where all their food and supplies were kept.  Visitors to the castle must take off their shoes as they climb up the steep wooden stairs.  I could not believe how steep these stairs were; I'm surprised I didn't slip and fall!

Nagano is also known for their apple orchards.  We stopped at this lunch place with traditional Japanese food along with fresh squeezed apple juice and homemade ice cream.  Needless to say, I enjoyed lunch a little too much!

Many of the rest stops and restaurants in Japan have these vending machine looking things where you order your food.  Once you punch in what you want, you bring the tickets up to the counter where you get your food.  It takes out all the interaction between waiters and diners!  Oh well, guess there wouldn't be too much interaction anyways with the language barrier!

Next stop was the Snow Monkey Park.  We hiked about 1.5-2 miles up a trail to an onsen area in the mountains.  This onsen is taken over by about sixty or so wild monkeys minding their own business.  It's one of the only places where you can get up close and personal with wild monkeys.  I mean, at one point, I had a monkey run right over my foot!  This trip made me want my childhood dream of having a pet monkey, to come true even more.  There was even a part at the bottom of the park that you could get in an onsen with the snow monkeys.  I wasn't all about that since it was outside and it was one of the naked onsens.  It was open for all the people to see too!  There were a few Japanese guys in it when we were walking by.  Crazy!  The walk up there was beautiful with snow falling all around us!  It felt like I was in a snow globe.
Snow Monkey Park, Nagano, Japan
Beautiful walk on a snow covered trail!
Onsen at the bottom of the park.  Notice the Japanese on
the left and the snow monkeys on the right. 

How cool would it be to just chill in a hot spring all day!

The girls at the snow monkey park
I love this picture!  Check out the koi fish in the moat
surrounding the castle.
The inside of the castle... very bare and open..
Pringles, yes!  Maybe not the same flavors I'm used to though.
Japan loves their Kit-Kats!  Each region/prefecture has
their own flavor unique to that area.
Most of the flavors are limited editions and are somewhat hard to find.
They're mostly always available at rest stops.  I'm definitely
excited to try the apple and blueberry cheesecake!  I think
I'll pass on the chili power for now.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sapporo Beer Factory (Part 2)

Sapporo Beer Garden and Museum

There was only two things on our must do list when we went up to Sapporo.  We already checked out all the snow and ice sculptures, so there was only one thing left to do... Sapporo Beer Factory!!  Japan is known for several beers, Sapporo being the best of course, then Asahi and Kirin.  If you know me at all, you know that i LOVE beer!  So, if I ever visit a city that has a brewery, of course I'm going to go to it!  And it's also a given that my partner in crime LOVES beer, so it wasn't even a question if we were going to go there.  :)

We found our spot in the Beer Garden tasting room, sampling some delicious beers!  My favorites were the Carmel Ale and Chocolate Stout.  I recommend both of these if you're looking for a specialty beer!  Amanda stuck to the Sapporo Classic draft beers.

After spending the afternoon with Tim and Kristin at the Beer Factory, Amanda and I made our way back downtown to check out some of the sculptures at night again before we had to head to the airport.  Of course, with our luck, our plane ended up being delayed a little over an hour and a half... meaning we would miss the last train back into Yokosuka by 15 minutes or so.  NO BUENO!!  We start brainstorming our options to get back to base in time to make it to work by 0645 the next morning.  If I wasn't working the next morning, we would have slept at the airport for a few hours and caught the first train back in the morning, but it didn't get there until 0633 and that was cutting it WAY to close.  The only other choice was to take a taxi back to base which would have been around 150-200 each!  Ahhh!  But of course, everything works out with us and we end up talking to the only other Americans on our flight which ended up being from Yokosuka also.  We caught a ride back to base with them, so everything worked out in the end.  That just means we can still take all these little random trips on our days off!!  Who's in for our next one?
There were so many beers to be tasted!  (Kristin, Tim, Amanda and I)
"I will take one of each please!!"
Delicious dark chocolate stout!  Where can I
find myself another please!!
They wanted to join in the snow festival frenzy too!
Japan LOVES their beer as you can tell!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sapporo Snow and Ice Festival (Part 1)

Sapporo Snow Festival 2011
This was probably my favorite!

I want to go back!  It's so beautiful up there!

The Sapporo Snow and Ice Festival is one of Japan's largest winter event every year.  Over two million people come to Sapporo to see the hundreds of beautiful snow statues and ice sculptures which line Odori Park and another main street in Susukino.  The city is turned into a winder dreamland of crystal-like ice and white snow!  The Snow Festival began in 1950, when local high school students built a few statues in Odori Park.  In 1955, the Self-Defence Force joined in and built the very first massive snow sculpture, for which the festival has become famous for now.  The festival is a must do especially if you are ever stationed in Japan!

There were a lot of sculptures modeled
after American movies
It wouldn't be a trip for Amanda and I if something didn't go wrong.  We made sure to leave ample enough time to make it to the airport, but the train took a little longer than we expected (especially since we went a few stops in the wrong direction after a connection), and then we arrived at the wrong domestic terminal.  Luckily, security was not like the states and we were through to the gate in 5 minutes.  Another weird thing was that we never once showed an ID/passport and we were able to walk on the plane with an open beer can!  Crazy!

note to self:  DO NOT watch the Superbowl
with Packer fans!  Boo!
Tim, Amanda, Kristin, and I
Our first mission when we arrived in Sapporo was to get to a bar so we could watch the end of the Superbowl since it was Superbowl "Monday".  Out of all the bars we could go to Hokkaido, we end up walking into the same packed bar that some of my friends were at.  Sadly I had to watch the Packers win the Superbowl with the only two Packer fans in the bar... Tim and Kristin.

Hiunkaku Of Hongwanji, a national treasure in Kyoto

After the game, we walked around the snow festival checking out all the amazing snow sculptures!  I couldn't get over all the detail and time put into some of these!  One of the main giant snow sculptures was modeled after the Hiunkaku of Hongwanji temple in Kyoto.  The Ground Self-Defense Force (about 4,500 people total) built this together for 31 days.  The sculpture was 15x24x24 meters (it was huge!) using over 4000 tons of snow!  The pictures don't do it justice!  There were a few other big sculptures modeled after a temple in China, The Lion King, Japanese cartoons, and scenery of Japan.  
view from the top of the Sapporo TV tower
of Odori Park and the mountains in the

The ice festival was a few blocks away on another main street in Sapporo.  There were hundreds of ice sculptures and even an ice slide lining the street all lit up at night.  I still can't decide which I like better, the ice or snow sculptures.  They were all very impressive!  We were able to get a great view of Sapporo and the whole festival from the observation deck of Sapporo TV tower (they tried to copy the Eiffel Tower).  I think next trip to Hokkaido will be to go skiing  where the Olympics took place.  If we were up there just one more day I would have liked to check out the mountains, but our trip was only two days.  

Mr Potato Head!!

We were there on the 1st day of the festival, so the international
competition was still going on with the sculptures hard at work.
Chinese temple (I think it's in Beijing, but not sure)
They were so beautiful at night with all the lights!
Sapporo loves their beer!  (and so do I)

yes, those are real fish in the ice!  So cool!
Japanese boy band rockin' out on an ice stage!