Backpacking Tips, Japan

Footloose in the land of cherry blossoms – Part 3

Japan’s four distinct seasons unfold different vistas of the country for travellers. While spring and autumn will stun you with breathtaking, colourful landscapes, summer will give you a chance to enjoy culture trips and join various seasonal activities hosted during vacation time. Winter gives you the opportunity to participate in traditional festivals, relax in an onsen (hot spring), and gorge on seasonal Japanese dishes.

While my spring visit to Japan did reward me with picturesque landscapes covered with stunning hues of pink, I was overjoyed to be a part of a traditional spring festival that I got to know about from an expat settled in Tokyo.

Based on our planned itinerary, we were meant to visit Lake Kawaguchiko (most popular among Fuji Five Lakes) on Day 8 to view the spectacular Mt Fuji. However, two things gave us fresh perspective. Firstly, after checking the forecast for Fuji Five Lakes region one day prior to our visit, we realized that the weather was not favourable for Mt Fuji viewing the following day. There was a very likely possibility that the mountain would be completely shrouded in mist, and, therefore, invisible. Many visitors who visited on that day ended up disappointed. Secondly, we came to know about a popular temple festival in Kawasaki that was scheduled for the next day.

Kanamara Matsuri, or festival of the Steel Phallus, is a fertility festival that takes place in spring every year at the Kanayama-jinja shrine in Kawasaki Daishi temple. Intrigued by this piece of information, we decided to check out the festival and then proceed to Nikko which was originally planned for a later date. We postponed Mt Fuji viewing to the following day and hoped the weather would support us.

Kawasaki Daishi temple
Kawasaki Daishi

In the morning of Day 8, we took the JR Odoriko (Limited Express) to Kawasaki station. From there, we walked to Keikyu-Kawasaki Station and took the local to Kawasaki Daishi. We used JR pass for the first leg of the journey and ICOCA card for the Keikyu line as it was not part of JR. By recharging the card at different stations where there was less rush, we could move through the automated ticket gates effortlessly during our entire trip. I would highly recommend carrying at least one of the contactless smart cards like ICOCA, SUICA, or PASMO while touring Honshu. They are actually inter-changeable.

On reaching the venue of the Kanamara Matsuri festival, we were stunned by the huge gathering of foreign tourists enjoying the fanfare with the locals. I was glad to have made it to such a unique celebration. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, was reflected in illustrations, candy, carved vegetables, decorations, and a mikoshi parade – a portable shrine carried on the shoulders of locals associated with the ritual.

After a quick tour of the shrine, the fair and the parade, we took a local back to Kawasaki station (paid with ICOCA). From there, we took a train on the Ueno-Tokyo Line to Tokyo. At Tokyo station, we boarded the Yamagata Shinkansen for Utsunomiya. From Utsunomiya, we took the local JR train to Nikko. The entire journey, completely free with JR pass, took around two and quarter hours.

On exiting Nikko station, words failed us as we took in the sight that unfolded that sunny afternoon. The distant snow-covered mountains of Nikko National Park cast a spell on us. We boarded the World Heritage Sightseeing bus headed towards the UNESCO World Heritage shrines and temples of Nikko. After paying the bus ticket with ICOCA card, we got down near Shinkyo, the landmark wooden arched bridge over the gushing Daiya river. We didn’t walk on the bridge though. Instead, we took a few pictures from the adjacent bridge meant for regular traffic.

Needless to say, Nikko’s World Heritage site had a lot to offer. However, we already had had our fair share of temple visits in Japan and wanted to head to Kegon waterfalls and Lake Chuzenji located inside the national park. We walked across the road towards the Shrine complex entrance and concentrated only on the largest and most popular temples. The first one was the Rinnoji temple. We bought a combination ticket for 900 yen to visit the main hall at Rinnoji and Taiyuin byo (mausoleum), but decided to visit Rinnoji on the return leg. We walked further towards the Toshogu shrine complex and bought tickets (1300 yen/person) from the ticket office at the entrance.

Toshogu turned out to be a relatively large temple. Some portions of the complex were undergoing renovation. Similar to most shinto shrines in Japan, Toshogu consisted of a stone torii archway. After entering the complex through the archway, we climbed a flight of stairs to reach the shrine. On its right was an impressive five-storey pagoda with Chinese zodiac signs carved around its first level. Elaborate carvings and sculptures in rich colours decked the temple gates and the structures within. The gilded shrine was shining bright in the afternoon sun.

After visiting Toshogu, we continued towards Nikkosan Rinnoji Taiyuin, passing the Futarasan shrine on the way (we gave it a miss due to lack of time). Rinnoji Taiyuin mausoleum is the final resting place of Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun. The main shrine, the hallway, and the worship hall, are designated as national treasures. There was a sense of calmness around the place.

Yashamon gate (Taiyuinbyo)

We returned to Rinnoji temple and entered the complex. The main structure of this Buddhist temple was the Sanbutsudo hall that enshrined gilded wooden statues of three different manifestations of Buddha. We considered ourselves lucky when we got to know that the hall had just emerged from scaffolding after staying obscured for almost a decade due to renovation work.. There was a treasure house and a small Japanese garden with a pond behind it that could be accessed with a separate ticket priced at 300 yen. We gave it a miss.

A brisk walk from Rinnoji brought us back to where we started – the bus stop near Shinkyo bridge. We caught a bus for Chuzenji onsen. The winding mountain path cutting through snow covered rocks was absolutely breathtaking!

When the bus came to a halt at the onsen stop, we couldn’t hold our excitement looking at the snow-covered grounds and a placid Chuzenji lake in the middle. A slippery walk took us to the free observation platform from where we stared at the half-frozen Kegon falls in amazement. After spending some time in the snowy wooded area, we headed back to the bus stop as dusk set in.

Kegon falls-Nikko

The ride back to Nikko station was a quiet one as we were busy watching the shadows of the evening. We passed the well lit Shinkyo bridge, glowing bewitchingly in the darkness.

Back in our hostel in Tokyo, we finally realized how tired we were after such a long and eventful day. We quickly slurped hot Ramen cup noodles and then drifted off to sleep.

Day 9 greeted us with clear skies and bearable temperatures. We headed cheerfully for Lake Kawaguchiko to catch a view of the iconic Mt Fuji, an active volcano considered to be the highest mountain in Japan. First, we reached Shinjuku station by metro. From there we took the train on JR Chuo line to Otsuki station. We then transferred to Fujikyuko Line and boarded the local (paid 1170 yen in cash for one-way ticket since neither JR pass nor IC card were accepted) to Kawaguchiko. The train had colourful motifs of Mt Fuji painted on the carriages that looked quite appealing.

On reaching our destination, we got caught in a foot-traffic jam. After a lot of jostling, we exited the station and headed for bus station no. 4 just outside the train station. From there, we took a bus to Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway near Lake Kawaguchiko. On approaching the lake, we were finally rewarded with a clear view of Mt Fuji. Before entering the cable car complex, we spent some time savouring the sublime moment. Everything was just picture-perfect – the beautiful Kawaguchiko lake against the backdrop of Mt Fuji, its snow-clad peak appearing to touch the sky!

Inside the Kawaguchiko ~ Mt. Fuji panorama ropeway, also known as Tenjo-Yama Park Mt. Kachi Kachi Ropeway, we joined a long queue for purchasing cable car tickets. We decided to opt for a set coupon for 1640 yen/person that included round trip cable car tickets and Fuji Express Line (Kawaguchiko-Otsuki) one-way ticket (for our return journey).

After spending almost half an hour in a second queue for getting into the cable car, we were finally on our way to the top of Mt Tenjo! The view was most certainly worth the wait.

The observation deck was covered in heavy snow and very slippery. This, coupled with a large crowd, made it difficult to spend much time there. Probably, summer and autumn would be more apt for the ride up to the observation deck. However, we were rewarded with a terrific view of Mt Fuji which suddenly seemed almost within reach!

We hopped into a cable car going down and soon found ourselves in a cozy little cookie shop located at the entrance of the ropeway station. The handmade cookies, shaped like Mt Fuji with white frosted tops, looked quite inviting. Each one was priced at 140 yen (rather steep). I picked up three different flavours – matcha, strawberry, and chocolate. In my opinion, the strawberry one tasted better than the other two.

There were plenty of cyclists around Lake Kawaguchiko, trying to cover as much of the Fuji Five Lakes area as they could.

We explored the restaurants and shops in the area and then sat in one of the benches by the lakeside. Munching into our fresh scones purchased from one of the bakeries nearby, we watched the passing tour boats on the lake, brimming with eager tourists.

As the chill was setting in, we began our long journey back to Tokyo. I thought it necessary to add that since we visited Kawaguchiko during early spring, we missed out on various attractions as roads were still closed due to heavy snow in the area. If you plan to visit during late spring, summer or autumn, you can actually take the sightseeing retro buses (red, blue, and green line buses) to explore the region extensively. I would recommend purchasing a bus pass (1500 yen) that gives you unlimited rides on the sightseeing bus lines. You can plan your itinerary for the day using the bus timetables mentioned here. Needless to say, if you start early from Tokyo, you will be able to cover more places.

While the Red line bus will take you to Kachi Kachi ropeway, scenic view point of Sakasa-Fuji (for viewing the reflection of Mt Fuji in the lake), Oishi Park, Kawaguchiko Natural Living Center and Music Forest Museum (art museum with vintage organs & live performances), the Green line bus stops at interesting spots like the lovely Yagizaki Park, Saiko lake, Fugaku Fuketsu (Wind Cave), and Saiko ‘Iyashi no Sato Nenba’  (a preserved site from a former farming village that was destroyed by a typhoon in 1966). Another fascinating place to visit is the Ice Cave, or, Narusawa Hyoketsu – one of the region’s most famous lava caves that is covered in ice all year round. It can be reached by the Blue line bus.

One thing is certain though – be it spring, summer or autumn, Mt Fuji remains unsurpassed in magnificence. Whether or not you manage to cover the sightseeing spots in the region depending on the season, you must make it to one of the five lakes – Yamanaka, Kawaguchi, Saiko, Shōji or Motosu – to capture the majestic Fuji.

Walking back to our hostel, we stopped by a small Korean restaurant for dinner. To me, the difficult part about ordering a meal in Japan was the guesswork. We would simply point at a photo of a meal that looked good, as there was no way of knowing the name of the dish which would be in Japanese without any English translation, and hope that it would match our expectations. The entire process of ordering would take place in silence with heads vigorously nodding or shaking. Fortunately, our fears about the food proved unfounded most of the time. It was only in our hotel in Noboribetsu (Hokkaido) that we got a chance to find an English-speaking waitress who explained every item on the menu so that we could make an informed choice.

Day 10 was our final day in Tokyo and wanted to make the most of it by exploring a different side of the city – Odaiba beach and its posh neighbourhood.

Before heading for Odaiba, we visited Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo’s largest and most popular parks for cherry blossoms, located just a short walk from JR Shinjuku Station.

The beautifully landscaped gardens and meandering walking paths, trees covered in a blast of pink cherry flowers, and tourists ambling about – Shinjuku Gyoen was a peaceful green paradise in the heart of a busy urban center.

View of Docomo Tower (NTT Docomo Yoyogi Building ) from Shinjuku Gyoen

After a leisurely walk around the park, we took a rapid train from Shinjuku to Tokyo Teleport Station. From there, we walked to DECKS Tokyo Beach Mall, a ship-themed shopping center. Besides branded stores and specialty restaurants, there was also a Madame Tussauds wax museum and Legoland Discovery Center. The open terrace, shaped like a ship’s deck, was a good place to enjoy a panoramic view of Tokyo Bay.

Exiting from the mall, we crossed the road and made our way to Odaiba beach. Although too early in the season to get in the water, children and teenagers were making the most of their vacation by frolicking on the beach with friends and family. The place also offered an unfettered view of the Rainbow Bridge. In the evening, the bridge is illuminated with alternating red, white and green coloured lamps, hence the name ‘Rainbow Bridge’. Unfortunately, we couldn’t enjoy the illumination since we had to head to our next destination, Sendai, in the evening.

From Odaiba-kaihinkoen Station (around 500 meters from the beach), we took the Yurikamome elevated train to cross the Rainbow bridge to Palette Town, a large shopping and entertainment complex. The view of the bay from the train window was simply fantastic! We could also spot the iconic Fuji TV building, international cruise terminal, the Museum of Maritime Science, and Daikanransha (Ferris wheel).

The short, but wonderful, train ride came to an end at Aomi station. We headed for Venus Fort Mall, just a 3-minute walk from the station. Resembling an 18th century European town, the mall had quite an effect on a first time visitor. Its ceiling lights transformed the enclosed space into an expansive sky, changing colours to represent different times of the day. It was quite a unique mall experience for us.

After exploring all the floors, we enjoyed an amazing Indian meal at the food court and returned to our hostel to collect our luggage. Suitcase in hand, we walked back to Tokyo station to catch a Shinkansen to Sendai. Around 93 minutes later, we were in Sendai. The hotel, just 300 meters from the station, had a natural hot spring (onsen) bathing room. My very first onsen experience was simply amazing! The warm, mineral-rich water felt so very soothing after the 10-day marathon tour of Honshu. Afraid of falling asleep in the onsen, I dragged myself out after 15 minutes and headed for the locker room. Soon after, we grabbed a quick bite and decided to call it a night.

Day 11 arrived, bright and sunny. We checked out of the hotel and headed for Matsushima, leaving our luggage at the hotel. Taking a train on JR Senseki line from Sendai station, we reached Hon-Shiogama station. Around 700 meters from the station was Marine Gate Shiogama, or Shiogama ferry terminal.

We bought tickets and boarded a sightseeing boat to explore Matsushima bay (1500 yen/person one way). Despite the chilly wind, the bay’s pine-clad islets kept us captivated. The small islands appeared to be shaped like birds and marine animals.

Closer to Matsushima, we spotted the long red foot-bridge leading to Fukuurajima Island as well as Godaido temple hall overlooking the bay.

The pleasure cruise ended in Matsushima port after 50 minutes.

We made our way towards the picturesque Godaido temple next to the pier. There was a castle across the road that, we later learned, was actually part of a hotel. Although Godaido temple was closed, the spectacular view of the bay from the islet, on which the temple was built, made it well worth the trip.

Our next stop was Fukuurajima Island, a 15-minute walk from Godaido temple. Walking on the 300-meter foot-bridge was an experience in itself!

We followed the hiking trail around the small pine covered island, enjoying the amazing scenery. The hike made us hungry, so we stopped by the small teahouse for some ice cream.

We had meant to visit Zuiganji, a famous Zen temple known for its beautifully gilded and painted sliding doors, but Fukuura island hike took longer than expected, so we decided to skip the temple. We had a long journey to Hokkaido scheduled later that day. After crossing Fukuura Island bridge, we walked for around 15 minutes to reach Matsushima Kaigan station. There, we boarded the train on JR Senseki line for Sendai.

A 40-minute train ride brought us back to Sendai. We rushed to our hotel, picked up our luggage and again hastened back to the station. We then reserved seats (mandatory for Hokkaido Shinkansen) at the ticket counter to board the Hayabusa Shinkansen bound for Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station in Hokkaido. After getting down at Hakodate, we took the Super Hakuto limited express to Noboribetsu. Except for the seat reservation (~ 9000 yen/person) for Hayabusa, the expensive train journey (~12200 yen) was free of cost with JR pass. Since our 7-day pass was reaching its expiry date at midnight, it was necessary for us to get to Hokkaido that day, and we made it right on time! The journey to Noboribetsu took nearly five and a half hours. We caught the last bus (at 9.34 pm) right outside the station and reached the onsen town in 10 minutes. You can access the Noboribetsu bus schedule here. Our hotel was a short walk from the onsen bus terminal.

Although tired, I could barely hold my excitement on entering the hotel. It looked like a mini township, complete with a departmental store, gift shop, gaming arcade, karaoke rooms, vending machines, restaurants, cafe & bar, roman bath, and an open-air onsen. Noboribetsu being our final destination in the country, we wanted to get a full on experience of the hot spring resort in Hokkaido. And, we did!

I freshened up quickly and, slipping into a yukata that I found in the room’s closet, headed for the open-air onsen. Some parts of the onsen area were still covered in snow, but once in the water, it was difficult to imagine the cold outside. It was exhilarating!

After a refreshing soak, we headed for a very late dinner at one of the traditional restaurants on the second floor of the property. The kind waitress patiently explained all the dishes on the menu in English so that we could choose appropriately without second-guessing. This made the meal all the more delightful. After a leisurely walk around the hotel, we were finally ready for bed.

Day 12 was practically the final day for sightseeing as we had an early flight to catch the next day. And, what better place to end our spring sojourn in Japan than Noboribetsu, Hokkaido’s most famous hot spring resort town?

After an elaborate buffet breakfast at the hotel, we set off to explore the town. Passing huge man-made canals carrying hot spring water, statues of Yukake-kizo (demon for good health) and Tomu-Kun (the city’s PR character), and the Sengen geyser park (geyser that spouts out hot sulfuric water every three hours), we finally reached Hell Valley, or Jigokudani, the main attraction in Noboribetsu.

Right after the main signboard of Jigokudani, we came across Oni-Bokora, the shrine of a praying demon believed to originate from the Edo era. On one side of the shrine was the statue of a standing red demon while the other side had a blue seated one.

We were completely taken by the mesmerising valley dotted with boiling sulfuric hot springs, sulphurous streams, and hot steam vents spewing volcanic gas. The name ‘Hell Valley’ suited the place perfectly with strong smell of sulphur pervading the surrounding air. It was quite an extraordinary experience.

From the valley, we followed the walking trails, freshly cleared of snow, through the wooded hills above the town.

Returning to our hotel, we checked out quickly, and took the bus to Noboribetsu station where we purchased tickets for Minami Otaru (3200 yen/person without seat reservation). We then boarded the Limited Express Hokuto train bound for Sapporo. For lunch, I bought hot Ramen cup noodles and sakura flavoured ice-cream from the vending cart on the train. The ice-cream was surprisingly delicious.

At Sapporo station, we kept our luggage in coin lockers (read: how to use coin lockers in Japan) and then boarded the local on Hakodate line to get to Minami Otaru station. It took us almost three hours to reach Otaru – a beautiful harbour town in Hokkaido with a strong European influence – from Noboribetsu.

Since time was limited, first we visited Otaru music box museum (Otaru Orgel Doh in Japanese) – Japan’s largest music box store – before it closed for the day. It was about 500 meters from the station. The store was housed in an impressive 19th century historical building with a charming steam clock at the entrance.

On entering the building, we were greeted with the sight of rows and rows of glittering music boxes of different shapes and sizes. There were all kinds – toys, souvenirs, gift boxes, miniature carousels and musical instruments, picture frames, stuffed bears – made of different materials including glass, wood, ceramic, and metal. The place transported us to a magical, fairytale-like world.

After exploring the Music Box Museum, we crossed the street and continued straight towards Sakaimachi-dori, a tourist street dotted with historical buildings and glassmaking workshops and retail outlets selling glassware. Otaru is famous for its glass lamps, fishing net floats, and tableware. Right at the beginning of Sakaimachi-dori street was the landmark building of LeTAO pastries shaped like a tower. LeTAO is a household name in Hokkaido, famous for its western confectionery.

Since the glassmaking workshops were already closed, we hopped from outlet to outlet, marvelling at the exquisite glass lamps, tableware and other decorative items.

On reaching the other end of Sakaimachi-dori, we took a right towards Minatomachi street and continued walking on Minatomachi. Five minutes later, we spotted the main attraction of Otaru – the Otaru canal. Although it was not the best season for taking a stroll along the promenade, we did it anyway! The waterway was still lined up with ageing stone warehouses which had been converted into shops and restaurants. The promenade, lit up with gas lamps illuminating the water’s surface, radiated an old world feel.

After a quick stroll by the canal, we took a brisk walk to Otaru station which was closer to the canal than Minami-Otaru station. We purchased the ticket at the counter (750 yen/person) and boarded the local for Sapporo.

On arriving at Sapporo station, we decided to cover another popular attraction in Hokkaido – night-view from Mt Moiwa. Exiting the station, we walked around 300 meters to Sapporo subway station and took the subway on Toho (blue) line to Odori. [Note: You can also reach Odori on the Namboku (green) line. Both Toho and Namboku lines connect Sapporo with Odori.] The brightly lit Odori park right outside the station looked quite inviting. However, due to paucity of time, we gave it a miss. Instead, we walked about 100 meters to Nishiyonchome station and hopped into a streetcar that took us to Ropeway Iriguchi Station. A 10-minute walk brought us to the entrance of Sapporo Mt Moiwa Ropeway. There was also a free shuttle bus available every 15 minutes, but we didn’t want to wait for it. At the ropeway terminal, we opted for the round-trip combo ticket (1700 yen/person) which included both the ropeway and Morris car to reach the summit.

During our ascent, all we could spot were the numerous city lights twinkling below. The gondola dropped us at the Moiwa Chufuku Station from where we boarded the Morris car which resembled a mini roller-coaster. A couple of minutes later we were on the summit. We climbed a flight of stairs to reach the rooftop observation deck. The nightscape truly lived up to the hype. Luckily, the sky was clear and, though chilly, we immensely enjoyed the 360 degree view of Sapporo.

15 minutes later we headed down and then returned to Sapporo station by the same route. We collected our luggage and bought tickets (1150 yen/person) for New Chitose airport. After a 50-minute train ride, we reached the airport. Since we had an early morning flight back home the following day, we had booked rooms in advance at the airport hotel inside the domestic terminal. It turned out to be a very good decision as we could manage a few hours of undisturbed sleep (much needed too!) followed by a good breakfast (included in the room price) the next morning before beginning the check-in process. The international terminal was easily accessible through an enclosed walkway.

Although Japan has plenty to offer, in my opinion, considering our lean budget and the limited time at our disposal, we actually managed to cover plenty of visit worthy places and bring back wonderful memories. If you wish to make the most of your time in the country, I would recommend that you follow my itinerary. You won’t regret it!

Since Kyushu is another must visit place, I would definitely want to return to Japan during autumn and cover a little more of the Five Lakes and Hokkaido along with Kyushu.

Check out top 14 things to do in Japan during the cherry blossom season below.

Also read about my experiences in Japan from Day 1 through Day 7.

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