Not a Great Start
There was little indication on the flight over that our holiday was about to get off to a less-than-ideal start. Skies were clear and turbulence was kept to a minimum, though the lack of a personal entertainment system on the Hong Kong Express plane was a bit of a letdown. Ashley and I were on our way to Japan for our holiday after the holiday, as I like to call it. I’d just finished my month-long internship in Myanmar, where the ratio of work to play was quite even in the end, and we’d even squeezed in a weekend in Bagan together over the New Year. Even so, we had a few extra days before the start of my second semester, and Japan is never a bad choice – great food, great service, and cities with no shortage of neighbourhoods to explore.
Over the last two years, we’ve snowboarded in Niseko, walked the neon streets of Tokyo, snorkelled in Okinawa, gazed at ancient temples in Kyoto, and ate our way through Osaka. This time around, we’d be heading back to Tokyo, with short excursions out to the ski resort of Gala Yuzawa, in Niigata Prefecture, and the ryokan area of Hakone, in Kanagawa. For our nights in Tokyo, we booked a room at Sotetsu Fresa Inn Nihombashi-Ningyocho, a cozy hotel to the east of the downtown districts.
We landed at Narita around 7 in the evening, and getting through customs was a breeze. We were one of the first passengers waiting at the luggage carousel, and I’d already started dreaming of dinner- ramen, pork cutlet, or maybe some Japanese curry. Then we waited, and waited some more, and, after everybody else had left, there we were – still waiting. We flagged down airline representatives from All Nippon Airways, who handle matters on the ground for Hong Kong Express, and, after a few frantic phone calls, they sombrely informed us that our luggage never actually got on board our plane. This normally wouldn’t be a huge problem, except we had plans to go snowboarding the next day, and all our winter gear was in that suitcase, lying somewhere in some forgotten corner of Hong Kong International Airport.
To their credit, the ANA staff were really quite helpful, and their sympathetic expressions of anguish softened our own initial reactions. After determining that our luggage wouldn’t get to us in time, even if they put it on the first flight the next morning, they got on the phone with Hong Kong and convinced management to give us 10,000 yen to cover the rental of winter clothing – jackets, snowpants, gloves, hats, and goggles. It wouldn’t cover everything, but we really appreciated their effort.
After saying our goodbyes, we finally made our way down to the train station to take the express into town. Unfortunately, we got on the wrong train – a much more expensive train – going to a different corner of Tokyo, which really is not a small city by any means. The kindly train attendant took pity on us and let us stay without paying the extra fare, but we spent another hour hopping on and off city trains to find our way back over to our hotel. It was close to 11 by the time we checked in, and we scarfed down cup noodles to keep our hunger at bay. Ashley had all her clothes with her on her carry-on, but I had to make do with whatever I had on me. It was not a great night.
Deep Valleys and Pine Curtains
We woke up bright and early the next morning, the previous evening’s misadventures mostly forgotten. The piercing winter sunshine belied the bone-shaking chill in the air, and we wrapped our jackets tightly around our shivering bodies as we walked over to the nearby subway station. A few stops later, we were at Tokyo Station, where we had arranged to meet up with our friend, Samantha. We’ve traveled with her a few times before (Seoul 2012, Taipei 2014, Vancouver 2015), and she moved to Tokyo nearly two years ago for work – we saw her the last time we were in town, back in 2015. Since that time, she’d taken up snowboarding, and she took the day off to join us for a day on the slopes. After a mad scramble through the labyrinthine passages of Japan’s busiest station (by trains per day), we leaped onboard the Joetsu Shinkansen, with minutes to spare, for the 90-minute journey to Gala Yuzawa Station.
The Japanese Alps, the snowy spine of Japan’s largest and most populous island, Honshu, are home to many of the country’s most popular ski areas – Hakuba, Nozawa Onsen, Karuizawa, and Niigata Prefecture’s very own Yuzawa. The Gala Yuzawa resort inside Yuzawa is especially convenient, having its own shinkansen station open only during the ski season (December to May). Inside the station, mere steps from the exit gate, you can buy your ski pass, rent whatever equipment you need – skis, snowboards, helmets, goggles, gloves, jackets, snowpants, etc. – and then take the gondola straight onto the hills. So, so convenient.
Ashley and I bought JR Tokyo Wide Passes for 10,000 yen each at Tokyo Station, giving us unlimited access for three days to all JR East Lines, the Tokyo Monorail, the Izu Kyuko Line, and other trains listed on the website. This had a few advantages for us – 1) It would cover our round trip to and from Gala Yuzawa, 2) It would also cover our upcoming two-day trip to Hakone, and 3) the pass comes with a discount on Gala Yuzawa lift tickets, locker tickets, and ski gear.
As we passed through the pine-covered ridges of the Echigo Mountains, a winter wonderland emerged from the deep valleys and pine curtains of Niigata’s eastern margins. Thick snowflakes fell from the skies over the Sea of Japan, covering the landscape in a thick blanket of powder and frost – perfect conditions for a day of carving. We spent most of our day in the resort’s Northern Area, sharing the hills with only a handful of other skiers and snowboarders – the perks of going on a Thursday. Our group of three drew thick lines across the virgin snow all morning and afternoon, the sounds of our boards biting into the powder muffled by the blankness around us. There wasn’t much variety from run to run, to be honest, but it was enough for us to have wide, open spaces and a soft landing, and it did just fine as a quick day trip from the capital.
By 7 PM, we were back in Tokyo, exhausted and hungry. We grabbed a quick dinner with Samantha in Tokyo Station’s Ramen Street, before going our separate ways again. When we got back to our hotel that night, our luggage had thankfully arrived from Hong Kong and delivered to the front desk, and I took a much needed shower. An ex-colleague of Ashley’s, formerly based out of the Tokyo office, had left the firm to pursue her dream of opening her own bar, and she invited us over later that evening to practice her cocktail-mixing skills and catch up. We were tired – so very tired – but the company was top notch, the drinks were excellent, and the cozy apartment was infinitely warmer than the chilly Tokyo night outside.
A Familiar Omakase
Before heading over to Hakone the next day, we had lunch at Manten Sushi, an omakase sushi restaurant in Marunouchi. We had dinner here with Samantha and another friend back in 2015, and my thoughts and impressions can be found here. I’m positive that there are countless sushi restaurants in and around Tokyo that offer similar value and satisfaction – this is just the one that we’ve found and enjoyed. The price is fairly reasonable for the quality and amount of food served, but I wouldn’t call it cheap either. You get what you pay for, and, in this case, you get a solid sushi meal that will leave your tastebuds and your stomach satisfied.
The Rhythm of the Ryokan
About a 100 kilometres west of Tokyo, in the mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture, lies the resort area of Hakone. Known for its hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji, the lakeside district is popular with both local and international tourists looking for a quick getaway from the city. Ashley and I really wanted to spend at least one night in a ryokan, so we booked a stay at Manatei Hakone in the village of Miyanoshita. The room that we got was more ryokan-lite – a proper bed instead of tatami, and meals served in the restaurant instead of in our room – but we had our own semi-open onsen attached to our bathroom, which was very excellent indeed.
To get there, we took the JR Tokai Shinkansen to Odawara, paying for the bullet train instead of using our JR Tokyo Wide Passes so we could arrive earlier. From Odawara, we took the charming Hakone Tozan Railway, a tiny three-car locomotive that snakes around the hills and valleys around Lake Ashi, getting off at Kowakidani Station. From there, Manatei Hakone was about a five-minute walk down the road and around the corner, built into the side of a forested hill.
The first thing we did after checking in was hop into our onsen, a wooden tub on a semi-open balcony, fed with the soothing waters from a nearby hot spring. It was incredible. Throughout that afternoon and evening, we were in and out of the water constantly, the winter winds blowing into the onsen room a refreshing contrast from the water’s blistering heat. When we weren’t outside, we were in our room, reading and catching up on some much needed rest – the accumulated fatigues of Myanmar, plane rides, train journeys, snowboarding, and early mornings. Time slowed down at the ryokan, the rhythm of our lives dictated by whims and lazy desires – to be in the onsen, or to not be in the onsen? When the sky darkened, we changed into our ryokan-provided robes and slippers and had an amazing sukiyaki dinner in the restaurant downstairs, before going back to our room for another long soak into the night.
In the morning, we were at it again, drinking cold cans of coffee in the onsen as the world slowly woke up around us. Breakfast was another satisfying affair, and we managed to squeeze in more onsen time before checking out at noon. We were utterly relaxed as we walked back to the train station, every care and worry dissolved into the mineral waters of Manatei Hakone. After taking the Hakone Tozan Railway back to Odawara, we decided to take the long way home, using our JR Tokyo Wide Passes on the slower JR Tokaido Main Line. It was mid-afternoon by the time we checked back into our Tokyo hotel.
Adrift in Tokyo
We didn’t really have a plan for the rest of the day, after coming back from Hakone. I’d looked up a few neighbourhoods that might be interesting to walk around in beforehand, and we picked a couple of areas to focus on. Our first stop was Blue Bottle Coffee in Kiyosumi-Shirakawa, a part of Tokyo referred to as Coffee Town for the number of modern coffee shops scattered around its neighbourhood streets. Blue Bottle Coffee, the famous Silicon Valley roaster from Oakland, California, expanded to Japan in early 2015, with customers waiting for hours when the first shop opened. The line wasn’t quite as long that afternoon, but it was certainly worth the wait.
After getting our coffee fix, we headed across town to Daikanyama, a trendy neighbourhood just south of Shibuya. Ashley and I, along with a growing number of our friends here in Hong Kong, are huge fans of Netflix’s Terrace House, a reality show set in Tokyo. One of the participants, a hair stylist named Tatsuya Uchihara, works in a salon in Daikanyama, which is pretty much the only reason we know the neighbourhood exists. The cornerstone of Daikanyama, however, is the T-Site, home to a massive bookstore complex called Tsutaya Books. This place is heaven for lovers of ink and bound paper, and we wandered its shelves and reading nooks until the evening grew cold and our stomachs began to rumble.
For dinner, we dropped by a place called Teyandei Izakaya in Shibuya, about a fifteen-minute walk from Daikanyama. Teyandei puts a delightful Okinawan twist on izakaya, and their food had all the right flavours that night. I’m not usually a fan of little dishes – tapas bewilders me – but each plate was prepared so well, with little culinary reminders of our holiday in Okinawa back in 2015. It was with some reluctance, then, that we said our farewells to the friendly staff after dinner, and, shivering already, headed back out into the frigid winter’s night.
Skytree Stacks and Thunder Gates
On our last morning in Tokyo, we headed up to Asakusa, a neighbourhood to the north of where we were staying, along the western banks of the Sumida River. There, tucked away among the narrow residential streets, is a small, unassuming teashop called Mimosa. A traditional kissaten establishment, the neighbourly ambience and simple decor gave the space a timeless sort of feeling – like nothing has changed since the 1980s. We found a free table amongst salarymen and warmly-dressed grandmas and grandpas that morning, chatting quietly or reading a newspaper. Mimosa serves a simple breakfast – eggs, ham, bread, etc. – but we were there for one thing only: the locally famous Skytree stacks – five thick pancakes stacked in a tower, topped by a brick of butter, and drenched in syrup. There’s nothing fancy about this dish – no special flavours or ingredients mixed into the batter, no artfully-arranged fruits, no ice cream or sauce or any other topping – just syrup, butter, and a hell of a lot of pancakes.
After rolling ourselves out the door, we traced our steps back towards the Asakusa subway station. My first trip to Tokyo was in 2015, when I tagged along with Ashley on one of her business trips. While she was at work during the day in Roppongi, I ran around town like a madman, seeing as much as I could. As a result, I ended up seeing a lot more of the city than her, and, this time around, I wanted to take her back to one of my favourite spots: Sensoji. The massive temple complex is the beating heart of Asakusa, from the massive Kaminarimon, or Thunder Gate, at the entrance; through the vibrant shops of Nakamise-dori, down the middle of the complex; to the deep red timbers of the main hall, Hondo, at the other end. The atmosphere is more festive than mystic, a stark contrast to the somber crowds around the pagodas in Myanmar, and families with pets and children scampered around, while women in kimonos prayed to the divine. We walked from one end of Sensoji to the other that morning, taking in the sights and sounds – the incense and the rattling coins; the fluttering banners and the phones held high at just the right selfie angle; and, towering above everything and everyone, the monumental red gates, keeping watch over us all.
We had a quick lunch at Mizuguchi Shokudo, a small restaurant off to the side of Sensoji. The dishes were simple and the food was tasty – our requirements don’t get much more complicated than that. With the conclusion of that meal, our Tokyo holiday was officially over, and we headed back to our hotel to grab our bags. We were back at the airport within a couple hours, and we landed in Hong Kong later that night. The next morning, I was on the hilly campus of the University of Hong Kong, ready to start my second, and last, semester of graduate school.