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Japan

Curious what backpackers do in Japan? Discover travel destinations all over the world of travelers writing a travel blog on FindPenguins.
  • It is a very cold -7° and has been snowing all day. We've just popped into this Soba Noodle restaurant for lunch and escape from the cold.

    Togakushi is well known for its Soba Noodles so looking forward to trying some.

    Update: Can confirm soba is good. Once the soba noodles are eaten you are provided with soba-yu which is the broth the noodles were cooked in which you drink. The water absorbs the nutrients from the soba making it good to drink following your meal.Read more

  • Enjoying some last night drinks in Nagano at the hotel bar on the top floor.

    I went with a Hakushu 12 Year old. Distilled in the Southern Japanese Alps (also known as the Akaishi Mountain) which covers a pretty large area of Japan's main island, Honshu.

    The scotch was gentle on the nose and had a strong body. Who am I kidding, it tasted like scotch.

  • Onsen translates to hot springs, so as you can imagine Nozawa Onsen has an abundance of hot springs which make for great public baths. There are 13 public baths scattered throughout the village (as well as numerous private baths in hotels and lodges).

    Wanting to immerse ourselves in Japanese culture we took the plunge (some what of pun, however it is considered rude to 'jump' into a bath) and give it a crack. We were recommended by our hotel to try Furusato no Yu which is Nozawa Onsen's newest public baths (opening in 2011).

    It was a bit daunting first and I will admit to a few nerves on the way there. Once you get into it though it is actually quite enjoyable and very relaxing.

    There are a few customs to follow, however they are generally common sense:
    - take your shoes off before entering (as is the case everywhere);
    - wash yourself thoroughly and wash away the soap before entering the bath;
    - don't splash or swim in the bath; and
    - dry yourself before going to the changing area.

    This bath had an indoor and outdoor bath. I tried them both. It is certainly a very relaxing way to end your day, and imagine it's something we will look forward to after skiing tomorrow.
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  • Wow. Every now and then you come across a place you just know you will fall in love with before you actually do. This is such a place.

    Narrow cobblestone streets, the constant sound of running water, the occasional whiff of sulfur from a hot spring, beautiful traditional Japanese architecture, sweeping vistas to the Japanese Alps, vending machines on every corner, wide ski runs, tall pine trees, everything comes together to make this place what it is. Oh, and the snow! As far as the eye can see. I have never seen so much snow (keep in mind I have only ever seen snow once before).

    We took the opportunity this afternoon to have a look around, originally thinking we would be gone for an hour or so, we got back to our lodge about 4 hours later. Despite being such a small village there is so much to see and do (before even getting to the skiing).

    The towns traditions appear to be very much in tact. I look forward to exploring more of what this wonderful place has to offer over the coming week.
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  • Tonight we ventured to Akibitei Okonomiyaki for dinner. This is a local restaurant which serves Okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and Yakisoba (stir fried noodles).

    What a treat. Saito-san, the owner and chef is a lovely man who cooks the dinner in front of you. It was absolutely delicious, quick and cheap!

    This place was off the beaten track a bit (we found it using a restaurant guide produced by one of the local tour providers) but well worth the walk. A quaint, non-assuming building with simple interiors. Thoroughly enjoyable and we think we'll be back before we leave.

    Also, it was a clear night tonight and we could actually see the stars!
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  • It snowed all of last night resulting in around an extra 15cm of snow on the mountain. Despite snow continuing throughout most of the day it was a great day on the slopes. Visibility was essentially unimpeded for the most part and very little wind.

    No lesson again today (weather permitting we will have one tomorrow) however feeling a lot more confident. We have essentially skied every green run (easy) and have started on some red runs (intermediate/blue). Sally thinks I'm getting better also.

    No stacks from either of us today. Though I awkwardly fell over when not moving at the top of a slope much to Sally's delight.
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  • 3 days of skiing down, 3 to go. Big improvements today for both Sally and I. We got away pretty early this morning catching the Nagasaka Gondala up to Yamabiko Station (1,407m) and skied down to Hikage.

    The weather in the morning was snowy however minimal wind. In the afternoon however the weather cleared and we were greeted with clear skies and sun.

    We had a lesson in the afternoon which allowed us both to work on our technique. At the end of our lesson our instructor took us down a black (advanced) run. This was my first black run and I made a positive start, navigating my way down the first 30-50m of moguls which was quite encouraging. This proved to be a bit of a false dawn however as I spent the next 100-150m falling over and sliding down the slope on my arse (the photo of me skiing below was one of the few times I was actually upright). It was at this stage I gave up and decided to walk the rest of the way, which proved to be just as difficult, if not more than skiing.

    All was not lost however as we made great progress throughout the lesson and will tackle more of the red runs and explore more of the mountain tomorrow.

    In the afternoon we were greeted with an amazing sunset over the mountains to the west. We went with a very traditional Japanese dinner of burgers (at least my beer was Japanese) and got some washing done at the coin laundry down the road.
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  • We (especially me) woke up this morning feeling pretty tired and sore so took it pretty easy. We headed up the mountain around 10am and skied a few runs before lunch. After lunch we ventured up to the top of Mt Kenashi (1,650m) which is the highest part of the resort.

    We skied back down to the resort via Skyline which is a red run running along one of the ridge lines. It was enjoyable however challenging due to an icy run and large crowds. The ice did however make it quite quick.

    Another highlight was when we were doing down the Karasawa slope we noticed a partly submerged shrine of to the side. We ditched our skies and trudged (in knee deep snow, which bought back some memories) closer to it and found a lovely spot.

    For dinner we headed to a place called Sukai which offers a sort of Japanese tapas. It was a delicious meal. To finish we enjoyed (especially Sally - we'll see if she still enjoyed it in the morning) a Sake served in a wooden cup.

    One of the things we have noticed here is Sake is generally poured to overflow the glass and is caught in a saucer. After asking the owner of the restaurant and doing some research it appears as though there is no entrenched tradition in this apart from a fad which developed in the post war period and had since caught on. The purpose was to make the patron feel special by giving them more then what they purchased. This however is a but if a con as the a single serve of Sake should be 180ml.

    The Sake was served with salt which we put on the lip of the cup. This contrasted with the sweetness of the Sake. This 'Yin and Yang' approach to food is something I've found often in Asian cuisine and is something I would like to play with more at home. I feel as though it is underutilized in Western cooking.

    Much of the same tomorrow. Only two days of skiing left so we will try to make the most of it.
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  • As we sit in this bus which left exactly on time, with assigned seats, a clean toilet on board, and seat belts, I've decided to write a little something about Tokyo.

    The stereotype of Japanese people being very disciplined and orderly - couldn't be more correct. There's directional arrows on the ground for walking traffic which people follow, there's areas to line up to get on the metro which people don't divert from (unlike the crowds that form at the Montreal metro stations), they even line up outside at bus stops to allow for whoever was there first to board first (unlike when I used to run up to the door the second the bus pulled in).

    Of all the countries I have recently visited, Japan has elicited the most positive remarks. Almost everybody says "I want to go there!". Jack has had similar responses and now we understand the westerners interest in visiting Japan - the culture is different enough to feel like you're a long way from home, the language and writing is enough to be slightly challenging, yet all the luxuries you could ever want while away from home are readily available. There's public (and free) washrooms everywhere outside and they're clean! In other countries, I've had to pay to use public washrooms in which I felt dirty squatting, with no toilet paper that you can't flush. We walked through a fancy building downtown yesterday to check out the architecture and used the washroom (public access). It had heated seats, 3 different bidet options, the water from the bidet was warm (Jack made me try it), it had the fake “flushing sound”; I didn't want to leave! And if you think it's just because we were in a fancy building, we also used the washroom in the metro station - no heated seats this time, but all the same bidet options with a speaker on the wall with a motion sensor to play the sounds of a waterfall when someone was sitting there. Shy pee-ers, fear no more! And yes I've just rambled on about washrooms, but they'll they you a lot about a country!

    The people are incredibly polite, bow constantly, and yet have a surprisingly limited English. As we walked up to the bus we are currently on, the bus driver wasn't standing at the door, he was next to the luggage area. He ran up, litteraly ran the few steps to the door and apologized by bowing about 3 times for not having been at the door to greet us. They are mostly soft spoken. The tickets for our bus were sold out until later in the afternoon, so we were given standby tickets for the next bus. There's a “standby standing area” which is right next to the ticket office, and we were told to wait there and they would call our number out if we get a seat. 5 minutes later, at the time we were told to listen for cancelations, a lady leans over the counter and starts almost whispering something in Japanese. I was standing no more then 3 feet away and could barely discern a syllable. After she repeated herself a few times, still barely a whisper, she asked to see my ticket, and decided to skip whoever she was calling, since apparently this person was supposed to have heard her by now, and gave us the tickets. I was so happy to be the white chick randomly standing in front of the cancelation area, it got her attention enough to score me a seat!

    We've managed to get a handle of the metro and subway lines, which I'm sure you've already assumed are incredibly organized and efficient. We grabbed a 24 hour pass, allowing us to actually go out the two evenings we spent here! We usually crash in the evening deciding to stay in, but this forced us to make the effort. We visited Shinjuku on our first evening and Shibuya the next. Think Time Square on steroids but for blocks! Lights and advertisements everywhere! Mostly only written in Japanese, so clearly us white chicks were not their target audiences. And since these two areas were the nightlife spots to be - plenty of sexualization of random things like the famous Robot Restaurant, Maiden cafes were the waitress are also “professional company” dressed in maid outfits, or the Bunny cafe (girls with little clothing and bunny ears). There were what seemed to be fetish clubs determined by the photo in the advertisement showing a man starring at feet from the other side of the glass… If I had the guts, and if I had done more research into knowing if it was something I was ok with supporting, I would have loved to explore the Japanese “sexual” culture better. It is fascinating to me how the sexualization of anything childish seems to be a widely accepted phenomenon.

    My mother kept telling me to “be zen” and find “zen places”, assuming she meant gardens and temples. Tokyo had plenty of temples, shrines and gardens to admire, but the amount of people at each of them made it just a little less zen. Still, I could really appreciate their attempt at balancing this urban area with more nature and culture. As usual in Asia, their temples and shrines are beautiful and ornamental; but in Tokyo, they are also incredibly clean and appear to all have been painted or repaired in the last month! Not a scratch anywhere, all the details in the carvings intact… With everything looking so new, it was a little bit hard to find the spirituality I usually enjoy feeling when presented with something that appears older, more usage, less presteen. Still, very beautiful.

    Jack says she's enjoying Japan but "needs a sprinkle of chaos in my day to day life" - She enjoys getting culture shock, disorganized bus systems, and feeling outside of her element when traveling. She says jumping onto a bus last minute to have it not leave for another 2 hours is part of traveling for her. Whereas here, because we didn't reserve our seats on a bus leaving at noon, we would not have to be able to leave until 2pm (next available, despite the fact that there's a bus leaving every 30 minutes). And once we did get our last minute seats, which were given away 10 minutes before the bus leave, the bus still left on time. If Jack and I had purchased these tickets ahead of time, there's no way we would have been there 10 minutes early, and they most probably would have given our tickets away. Also, all of our hotels were booked before leaving as per a friend's suggestion that Japan doesn't do well with last-minute reservations. Clearly, she's been challenged differently!

    Conclusion of Tokyo - large metropolitan city, clean, so clean, poeple everywhere, well kept beautiful temples and shrines, well kept parks, not too much of a shock to the system which makes it easily do-able, and on that note - know that I've been eating perfectly fine since we've arrived! Yay for me!

    Oh, and Jack adds that smokers beware! Here they have specific areas for smoking and everyone respects this. No smoking and walking allowed! And vending machines are everywhere, including small residential street, mainly selling drinks and coffee and so forth. That's all.
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You might also know this place by the following names:

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