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.

Cabins

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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The Best Doughnuts in Tokyo

I won’t call myself a doughnut connoisseur, but I’m definitely an enthusiast. I LOVE doughnuts. All confections really. But there’s just something so comforting and satisfying about a perfectly made, fluffy, sweet-but-not-too-sweet doughnut.

Which is exactly what you’ll get at DUMBO Doughnuts and Coffee in Azabujuban, Tokyo! DUMBO Doughnuts is situated in a less touristy part of town, tucked between apartment buildings and smaller businesses. The shop is cute but pocket-sized. It seats only six or seven. When I went, every seat was occupied. But there’s a park just one minute away that you can sit at and enjoy your goodies.

The shop features about ten to twelve different doughnuts. I ordered the cheesecake doughnut and the limited edition Sakura white chocolate doughnut. The texture reminded me of the doughnuts from Dough in New York City. I expected the cheesecake one to be super rich and sugary, but it wasn’t. It was the right amount of sweet. The crackers on top were a little different, but interesting in a good way.

The coffee selection isn’t as extensive as Starbucks, but I don’t think it needs to be. DUMBO offers all the essentials. I really enjoyed the raspberry lemonade! It was sweet, tangy and fizzy. Perfect for the warm weather days.

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Summertime Dreaming

One of the best parts about visiting Okinawa is island hopping. There are quite a few isles that surround (and are part of) the main archipelago, Okinawa Honto. Some you have to access by ferry or plane, but Kouri Island you can access by car. A bridge connects it to the main island, making it an easy day trip if you rent (or have) a car. The water is the most beautiful shade of cerulean, the sand is smooth and almost white and the waves are gentle. It’s the perfect place to relax.

Kouri Island is tiny, with an area of only about three kilometers. But it’s a great place to spend the day. It has three magnificent beaches, a few cafes, food trucks, and restaurants, a handful of hotels and an ocean tower where you can enjoy fantastic panoramic views of the island and its adjoining bridge.

This photo was taken at Kouri Beach. I couldn’t wait the extra few minutes it takes to get to Tinu Beach (our final beach destination) to put my feet in the ocean. So we pulled over in the first parking area from the bridge, jumped out of the car and headed straight to the water. It is one of my favorite days. ❤

 

Bibimbap Bliss

The best place to get the best of anything is at the source. You want the best pasta? Go to Italy! You’re looking for the best pad thai? Visit Thailand! The best sushi? Duh, Japan! So it’s no surprise that the best bibimbap I’ve ever eaten, I had in Korea. What is surprising is that one of my favorite spots for it is a chain. 😮 I try to stay away from chains because I feel like mom-and-pop eateries usually have more authentic and more flavorful dishes. But that was definitely not the case here.

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I found Yuk’ssam Naengmyeon by accident. I was wandering the streets, taking pictures and shopping when I smelled it. The savory aroma of grilled beef wafted. So we went in. Yuk’ssam Naengmyeon is actually known for its cold noodles, but it was still a little cold out, and I wanted a hot meal. So I asked for the bibimbap and an order of mandoo (Korean dumplings).

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I love bibimbap. It’s a bowl of rice topped with veggies (some are seasoned and sauteed) an egg, and (usually) pepper paste. This dish has many variations and it’s rarely the same from place to place. The vegetables are sometimes different. Some places serve it in a hot stone bowl; some don’t. Some places serve it with a raw egg; some with it over easy. Some have meat; some don’t. This one came with a thinly sliced omelette and beef on the side.

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I really enjoyed this version of bibimbap. It was simple but flavorful, with great texture. The vegetables were fresh and tasty. The kimchi was spicy with a tiny bit of crunch. And the beef was really excellent (my favorite part). It was well-seasoned and tender, as beef should be. The mandoo was pretty good, too.

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There are more than 30 Yuk’ssam Naengmyeon restaurants throughout South Korea.  You can find one is most cities.  There are several in Seoul. Next time, if it’s warmer, I’ll try the cold noodles. 😉

Blossoms & Bubbly

Springtime in Japan is all about cherry blossoms. Tiny pink blooms sprout from trees sprinkled about in most streets, parks and neighborhoods in practically every town and city. Festivals and illuminations are plentiful, and in Tokyo Midtown they celebrate the season with an enchanting viewing of sakura trees and bottles of bubbly. Midtown Blossom features over 150 cherry blossom trees in the garden and throughout the grounds, some of which are lit up with brilliant bulbs in shades of pink and white after sunset. One of my favorite parts of the Midtown Blossom event is the Blossom Lounge, an outdoor watering hole that serves Chandon, beer, a handful cocktails and a small variety of unique sweets and snacks. The wine-flavored potato chips are super tasty.

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The park right next to the garden is a perfect place to picnic (or if you like me, take a nap). It’s also a great place to enjoy the season with kids, because there’s a playground for them to run wild in.

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You can find and enjoy cherry blossoms practically anywhere in Japan, but in Tokyo this really is one of the prettiest places to witness them. These little florets last only about a week and are already starting to fade. However, the lights and the booze at Midtown Blossom will be around April 15, 2018.

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In Full Bloom

Cherry blossom, or sakura, season is one of the most beautiful AND popular times of year in Japan. Delicate, baby pink petals float on trees all over the country, and cities celebrate their magic with festivals and illuminations. One of my favorite places in Tokyo to enjoy the splendor of these tiny florets is along the Meguro River. I shot this photo (and so many others) on the first day of the Naka-Meguro Sakura Festival (March 24, 2018). Several small bridges connect the streets throughout the course of the river, making them great spots to take pictures. The streets on both sides of the river are lined with brilliant pink and white lanterns and stalls selling sakura-themed foods and drinks (the sakura infused sparkling rose is AMAZING!). This year, the celebration goes through April 10, 2018.

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Golden Waters

Nature is an incredible thing. It never ceases to amaze me. I witnessed these beautiful golden waters when I visited the Ruifang District of New Taipei City in Taiwan. The cascade of gold liquid is caused by the metal deposits in the old gold mine that the water flows through. The contrast of the brilliant, yellow elixir gushing through the greenery in hills is stunning. It streams all the way down the mountain to the sea, where the blonde water meets the turquoise ocean. But it doesn’t mix; the gold is on one side and blue on the other. They call it the Yingyang Sea.

While striking, this metallic water is extremely toxic. You’re not supposed to drink it or even touch it. Honestly, for me, just looking at it was more than enough. 😉

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!

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.