Climbing Mt. Apsan

It can be hard to get a workout in when you’re traveling. Between sightseeing, food tasting, experiencing new things and meeting new people, who has the time?!? For many, carving out an hour or two to exercise while on holiday isn’t realistic. They’re too busy adventuring and gallivanting to squeeze it in. But there are ways to explore AND burn calories simultaneously. During my last trip to Daegu, South Korea I did exactly that.

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Mt. Apsan is one of the most popular places to visit in Daegu. Visitors can enjoy swimming, practice archery or ride horses at facilities at the bottom of the mountain. Additionally, the panoramic views from the top are breathtaking. It makes the city seem so small and far away when it’s really quite big and very close. You can enjoy these views by taking a short (and reasonably priced – 9,500 Won roundtrip) cable car ride to the peak of Mt. Apsan or by climbing the mountain. Well… hiking it, really. Which is exactly what we did.

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Bright and early at six o’clock in the morning we started our journey from the hotel to the summit. Luckily, the walk to the base of Mt. Apsan from the hotel wasn’t very far. Just a brisk, mildly-inclined, 15-minute walk away (give or take five minutes). From bottom to the top, however, is a completely different story. There are a variety of walking routes you can take, depending on where you start and what your capabilities are.

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The path we took was shorter in distance but at a pretty steep incline. I was too focused on climbing to read the signs, but the trail was about 4 kilometers (from the hotel to the top) if my watch calculated correctly. It took us about an hour and a half to get to the apex (we stopped a couple of times to hydrate and catch our breath). The path we took crossed a couple of creeks and was lined with beautiful trees and greenery. At the top, there are a couple walking paths to different areas or you can just enjoy the observatory area. Where we ended up was visitor light. It was a more secluded area and felt far more serene. Also, we got there just after 07:30, and the cable car wasn’t running yet. That’s probably why it was much less crowded (we were the only ones there) and more peaceful. The hike down took us only about half of the time we spent going up.

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Climbing Mt. Apsan instead of catching the cable car to the top is a great way to experience nature, explore the terrain and get in some exercise while still seeing the sights. It takes little longer, but if you’re not super pressed for time you’ll really enjoy it. Just follow the signs that say Mt. Apsan, and you won’t get lost or be disappointed. The views are spectacular and the endorphins are worth it. Plus, you won’t feel guilty for ordering dessert later.  😜

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If you want to check out Mt. Apsan and have bad knees or another condition that prevents you from climbing to the summit (or simply don’t want to hike), the cable car takes only 15 minutes. It starts running at 10:00 and goes up every 15 minutes or so. The last ride up depends on the time of year you go. It varies between 18:00 (winter) and 18:30 (summer). The signs were all in Korean, but the cab driver told me you have to buy your ticket 30 minutes prior to the ride.

Whether you decide to climb to the top or ride to it, Mt. Apsan is definitely a must-see in Daegu!

Never Summer in Niseko… Well Almost

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. There are few things in life that I enjoy more than snowboarding. While the idea of having your feet strapped to a waxy, slippery sheet of wood and gliding down a mountain, sometimes at very fast speeds, is terrifying or unimaginable to some, to me it’s enlivening.

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Japan has some of the best conditions for snowboarding that I’ve ever experienced. I wouldn’t call myself an expert; I haven’t been to all of the resorts in Japan. But I have been to quite a few and never felt disappointed. This year I went to Niseko in Hokkaido. I’d heard a lot about it; how it’s the prime place for skiers and boarders. So I just had to check it out. Luckily, the season is quite long, so making it to Niseko wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. It starts in late November and goes through early May. And the area is quite big.

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We stayed in a small cabin just a short walk from the Grand Hirafu ski area. Niseko has four main ski locations (bases) with many accommodation options at each. We selected Hirafu because of the proximity from the cabin to the lifts and the amenities in the area. I wanted a cabin instead of a hotel for privacy and space, and the options and prices I found in Hirafu were fantastic. Our rental offered Wifi, light breakfast, instant coffee, and Netflix. 👌🏽 Plus, there are plenty of shops, bars and places to eat nearby, and the equipment rental locations are just steps from the lifts.

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I’d heard that the snow quality in Niseko is unlike any place else. Now having been, I can say it’s some of the best snow I’ve had the opportunity to risk my life on. 😂 It snowed every night (some days too), so the powder was always fresh and fluffy. Also, Niseko has plenty to offer skiers and boarders of all experience levels. There’s a plethora of courses, lifts, and off-piste options. The Hanazono Terrain Park  (located in Hirafu) has a dope halfpipe and a few kickers and rails for the real adventurers who are all about jumps and tricks. And for those who have never done it at all, there are several ski schools that can help you get started.

 

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Niseko is now one of my favorite snowboarding destinations. I only wish I had gone for more time so that I could really experience and enjoy all of the ski options and areas. Three days just wasn’t long enough! If I get the opportunity to go again, I’ll probably stay in a different location, maybe Niseko Village, just to mix it up. But I really enjoyed Hirafu, and absolutely recommend it.

 

 

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Another perk: everyone speaks English. I’ve been to many resorts in Japan, and I mostly have to point and Google Translate my way through things. But I didn’t have that problem in Niseko at all. Almost everyone I interacted with was a foreigner and the ones who weren’t spoke English. Everyone was friendly, the service was great, and I always got what I asked for. 😜

 

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Prices:

Lift tickets are little pricey, but they grant you access to all the four areas on the mountain (the equivalent of four pretty large resorts). And they get cheaper the longer you’re there. We were there for three days and I paid about $195 (19,800 Yen), which I think is reasonable for what you get. The lifts are open all day! They start running at 8:30 and you can come and go all day until 20:30. Night skiing is available at all four areas. I loved being able to sleep in and still get hours in on the slopes each day.

 

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Getting to Niseko:

Niseko isn’t exactly close to the airport. And depending on which one you fly into, will depend on how much it will cost and how long it will take. I flew into the Sapporo New Chitose Airport. It was less expensive, but most importantly, it’s closer to Niseko. From there, you can either rent a car, take the train, or hop on a bus. I chose the bus (click here for schedules). It’s easy and goes right from the terminal to the Hirafu Welcome Center (our hosts picked me up from there). The bus costs about $40 (4000 Yen), and it takes about two and a half hours. The train is a little cheaper but requires a couple of transfers and takes a little longer. I arrived at 22:00 and was already tired, so convenience was my priority.

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Pike Place

It was four years ago, almost exactly. I stopped in Washington for a few days to visit family before moving across the globe to Japan. My sister lived near (but not in) Seattle, and during my very short trip, she brought me here. Pike Place Market. Home of fresh flowers, even fresher seafood and some the freshest dairy products I’ve ever had the chance to sample and purchase. I fell in love. Not only is this one of the biggest (and best) farmers’ markets I’ve been to, but it’s also one of the loveliest. It overlooks the deep blue waters of Elliot Bay and boasts a bunch of restaurants, shops, and art vendors. The MarketFront is a newer addition to Pike Place and the view from there is splendid.

I’ve gone back to Pike Place several times since my first trip. This picture was from my most recent visit. I took a lot of cool photos that day, but none of them say Pike Place louder than this one. The sign is iconic. ❤

Learn more about all the cool things the market has to offer here.

Tokyo Goes Green

Tokyo celebrates almost all countries and cultures around the world, and Ireland is no exception. Yesterday, the city revered St. Patrick and the Irish with a parade down Harajuku’s Otomesando Dori. Irish Network Japan, or INJ, started organizing this parade in 1992, and it’s been going strong ever since. Honestly, when we showed up it didn’t look like much (maybe we got there too early). But I was very pleasantly surprised. The parade featured dancers, twirlers, bands, and fans. And it was a lot of fun. People came covered head to toe in their best green attire and accessories and enthusiastically lined the street to watch, listen and wave to the parade participants. While not as extravagant as parades in New York and Boston, it was lively and entertaining. It wasn’t overly crowded and didn’t last all day (both big pluses in my book). All in all, a fantastic way to remember and honor the patron saint of Ireland. And then, go shopping after. 😀

For information on next year’s parade, check the INJ website.

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Under The Sea

Swimming with the fish is an incredible experience. I’m not a good swimmer or a fan of being underwater, so, needless to say, I was really hesitant to sign up for this excursion. But I’ve been on this face-your-fears, you-only-live-once kick lately. So I decided to go for it! Besides, I had (and still have) no idea if and when I’d be in the Maldives again.

Our tour guide took this picture of me during our first snorkel adventure. It exceeded my expectations in every way possible. The guides were so friendly and knowledgeable. They knew all about the reefs and sea life and the best places to observe some truly spectacular underwater creatures. On this day we swam with sea turtles, stingrays, countless fish and an abundance of other ocean beings.

It was such a good day. I ❤ the Maldives!

My Five Travel Must-haves

My packing list tends to vary by location and season. If there’s a beach or pool, I pack my bikini. If there are mountains and snow, I bring my gloves and a big coat. But there are a few things I never leave home without. My passport, medicines (headache and cold stuff) and sneakers go without saying, so I’m skipping those. But these five things I absolutely need!

1. Journal

I never travel anywhere without it. Ever. I typically don’t have time while I’m traveling to make full entries. But I use it to jot down notes, the names of places, lessons learned, itineraries, etc. I also tape ticket stubs, receipts and sometimes even napkins on the pages (yes, I’m sentimental like that). It helps me remember my adventures better. And it’s always fun to go back and read it after time has passed.

2. Headphones (and iPhone)

I never leave home without them; it doesn’t matter how far I’m going. Listening to music helps drown out noise during flights, but also I like to create soundtracks for my trips. I know. It’s a little weird. But songs and smells trigger my memory more than anything else, and I really love hearing a song and having it transport me to the places I’ve been and remind me of my adventures.

3. Camera(s)

Duh! The camera I take depends on where I am going, how I’m getting there, and how long my trip is going to be. Sometimes I take my GoPro. Others I take my Nikon. Or sometimes even my Pentax. I always have my phone, though (unless I lose it mid-trip–yes, it’s happened), and the camera on it is pretty decent. having a way to capture my travels is crucial.

4. Skincare (Gotta have it!)

First, sunscreen. I very rarely burn. But I never want to. So I always pack my sunscreen–especially the stuff for my face. I use Kiehl’s Super Fluid Daily UV Defense. It’s lightweight and has SPF 50. And my face stays burn free. Second, moisturizers. I find my skin gets really dry when I travel, especially when I go on long trips. So I always make sure I pack moisturizer for my face and body and eye cream (Keihl’s Rosa Artica face and eye cream and coconut oil for my body). I also pack a few moisture-mask sheets. This stuff keeps down skin irritation for me, and there’s nothing worse than going on vacations and feeling itchy, irritated or uncomfortable.

5. Rosebud Salve

Lastly, I can’t live without my Rosebud. It’s not just a must-have for travel; for me, it’s an everyday essential. It helps with dry skin, soothes burns, and even treats diaper rash. I mostly just use it as a lip balm, but I never leave home without it.

Neon Lights

Signs illuminate so much of Tokyo. Streets in Shinjuku, Akihabara, Roppongi and pretty much most any other major neighborhood in the city are littered with bright lights, placards, and ads. But I really love the glow of this particular street. The vibrant, gleaming cerulean and fuschia and pretty fonts fit the vibe of this district perfectly. Harajuku is known for being quirky, trendy, artsy and super fun. Takeshita Street is especially popular with the younger crowd, and its shops, style, and atmosphere make that evident. The narrow road is almost always crowded with energetic teens and tourists shopping and eating. I can almost smell the sweet, sugary crepes through the photo.

Holy Ground

Japan seems to have temples at every turn. You find them where and when you least expect to, hidden in plain sight. I found this one while looking for a hiking path in the mountains. My Google Maps must’ve gotten lost or confused (or both) because I followed the directions precisely. I took every turn as directed and followed the winding road exactly as the map displayed. Yet somehow I ended up here. I guess it was meant to be.

This isn’t one of those touristy temples that you’ll find on a must-see or best-of-Tokyo list. It’s doesn’t have an information booth or lines of people waiting to say their prayers. It’s nestled in the mountains, not close to much but a few houses a railroad track. But that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. The details are lovely. The colors are vibrant. And the vibe is serene, refreshing, and everything I needed this day.

Let It Snow

As temperatures drop and days get shorter, many find themselves longing for summer… Wishing for warmer conditions, nine o’clock sunsets and hours by the pool (or beach). Enduring snow, ice and below freezing temperatures is not something a lot of people look forward to. But with wintertime comes hot cocoa, snowmen, and, most importantly, the thrill of winter sports.

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While many dread the arrival of winter, I wait for it like a child waits for Christmas or summer vacation–impatiently and excitedly. I watch the forecast and snow reports incessantly, eagerly anticipating the start of ski/snowboarding season. I wouldn’t call myself an expert (or even good) by any stretch of the imagination. But I can’t wait for the mountains to finally have enough snow on them for me to clumsily tumble down the slopes on my snowboard. I look forward to it every year.

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Snowboarding is one of my most favorite activities. I love how it makes me feel. It’s relaxing and exhilarating and freeing all at the same time. I relish feeling the wind on my face as I glide down the mountain. And I always feel ecstatic when I learn to do something that I couldn’t do before. It is physically tiring, and sometimes even a little painful, but totally worth it.

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Snowboarding is awesome, but not all resorts are created equal. Don’t get me wrong, it’s unlikely that I’ll turn down the chance to board, regardless of where. However, there are some locations that far better than others. And then there are those that are just incredible. One of my favorite places to snowboard is in Ajigasawa, Japan. The Aomori Spring Ski Resort isn’t super big, but it’s also not overly crowded (which I love). It features 14 trails, four lifts, and a gondola. About half of the trails are for beginners (perfect for kids and a novice like me), 30% are for intermediate skiers and snowboarders and 20% are for the experts. The quality of snow at this resort is excellent (lots of powder). It was like gliding on clouds, and spending a few days on the slopes at this resort was heaven. The main trail is 3.4 kilometers, and while not extremely steep (the max slope was only 18 degrees) or difficult (it’s a beginner run), the landscape was diverse and beautiful. More advanced skiers and snowboarders may not enjoy this resort as much as I did. But there is plenty terrain to go off-piste and the resort also has a big half-pipe for the more adventurous types.

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I also really enjoyed Aomori Spring because it offers night-skiing and boarding. This was the first resort I ever boarded at night at, and it was really great. I half-expected the snow to be harder or icier, but it wasn’t. It was soft and fluffy, and the courses were very well-lit. However, only two of the lifts are open for night skiing and none of the advanced trails are accessible after 1700.

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The amazing cabin cul-de-sac we stayed at when I visited this resort, though, was what really made this trip for me. At Aomori Spring, you can stay at the very nice and very elegant Rockwell Hotel. It offers comfortable, Western-style rooms with views of the slopes. It has a bar, restaurant, spa, and onsen, and the hotel is situated at the foot of two of the main lifts. But we wanted something a little more private and spacious, so we opted to stay in the little cabin village just a few minutes down the mountain (think fancy camping). The little wooden cottage was fully furnished and featured a kitchen, two full beds, and a loft space. There are only about ten of them, and they are surrounded by thick, snow-covered trees. It’s a wonderful place to start and end your day. Access to the lifts from the cabins is easy, and you’re close enough to the hotel to take advantage of its amenities. However, you’re just far enough away to feel secluded and really appreciate nature. It’s what made this getaway feel that much more relaxing and adventuresome.

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Prices:

The prices at this resort are incredibly reasonable. A full-day (8 am to 5 pm) adult pass cost me 4700 Yen (about $45), and night skiing/boarding is available for only 2800 Yen ($25-ish) from 4:30 pm to 9 pm.

How to get there:

The easiest way to get there is to drive. You can take a couple of trains, but that still doesn’t get you to the resort. You would have to take a taxi to get there from JR Ajigasawa Station. There’s a free shuttle from the station if you stay at the Rockwood Hotel. I drove to the resort and found it to be super simple and way more convenient (note: I almost always opt for convenience, especially when I’m limited on time). Plus, I’ve ridden the Japan Railway enough times to feel confident that I wasn’t going to miss anything. Rental cars are available at the Aomori Aiport (just reserve it in advance); the drive takes about an hour.

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