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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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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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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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.

Castles and Fairytales

Today’s sunshine and warm weather have me feeling super excited about spring! Sandals, shorts, cherry blossoms… I can’t wait. One of the most beautiful places I’ve been to during allergy season is Hirosaki Castle. The three-story, centuries-old structure is located in Hirosaki Park, in the Aomori prefecture, Japan. This is such a cool place to visit in the springtime. There are cherry blossom trees everywhere, making this already stunning and picturesque spot even more magnificent.

I went to Hirosaki Castle for my friend Jackie’s wedding. Jackie and Jerrod professed their undying love and commitment to one another under thousands of delicate, tiny, pink petals floating on branches and through the air with this marvelous structure in the background. A faint floral scent drifted. It was magical… like a fairytale. I hope Jackie and Jerrod’s life together is like one, too. ❤ ❤ ❤

Majestic Mount Fuji

Seeing the sun set on Mount Fuji is… breathtaking. But watching it and its reflection from Lake Yamanaka is something else entirely. A few days ago I went on a quest to see (and photograph) Mount Fuji from all of its five lakes. I drove through winding roads to each of them in hopes of capturing its magic from different bodies of water (my extended post on that adventure is coming soon).

Of all the photos I took that day, this is by far my favorite. And the view from Lake Yamanaka, with its pink and sherbet sky, is hands down the best (in my opinion at least). Maybe it’s the enchantment of the sunset. Or how close the volcano seems. There’s just something so extraordinary and calming about being surrounded by all of this nature. There were people all around, but no one said a word. I think they were all in awe as well.

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.