Of Snows and Hot Baths

In the middle of Daisetsuzan National Park, nestled in narrow scenic gorge flanked by cliffs,

abundant hot springs, powerful waterfalls,

and fantastic rock formation is a full-scale mountain resort town called Sounkyo.

It has become quite touristy because it is an excellent base for trekking and skiing around the National Park.

From late January to the end of March, the town hosts (you guessed it) the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival (Sounkyo Onsen Hyoubaku Matsuri).

The highlight of this festival is the frozen waterfalls along with the man-made, multi-story high structures that have a maze like tunnels running through them, all built around the Ishikari River.

Snow domes and ice sculptures likewise scatter around the compound.

Heated quarters with warm drinks and food here.

And even if logic tells you to stay indoors due to the severe cold weather, make sure to be there at night


The Ishikari River runs through the festival.

or miss out on the spectacular lights that illuminate the whole place come sundown. On weekends, you’ll be lucky to witness fireworks too.

Us in an ice bar display

The best way to end the evening is to thaw off at one of the many hot springs found in town. At the Sounkyo Kanko Hotel, we went for the spacious outdoor bath at the back of the hotel. Crazy it may seem, but because this open-air bath is unisex, it was wonderful to be sharing this experience with the hubby. Getting ourselves to walk the short distance from the dressing room to the pool in skimpy clothes provided by the hotel was unimaginable, but once in the hot bath, it was nirvana. This being the last stretch of our Hokkaido winter holiday, it seemingly melted away all the frozen kinks in our body, accumulated over the past days.

Ahh… Always a good experience, this bathing in the snow.

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Happy Feet At Asahiyama Zoo

Credits: Solid Brown paper and Guess What Tag by Splendid Finn You are awesome kit; Bow, Ribbon Cluster, Staples, Saving Memories word art by Sus Design

Mumble, the penguin character in that animated film, Happy Feet, that cannot sing but tap danced his way to Gloria’s heart. Yes, that same Mumble charmed its way into my heart too.

So the whole reason I was in Asahikawa was to be up close to the likes of Mumble. All these chubby birds had to do was waddle past us, and it made my day.

An icon of winter at the Asahiyama Zoo, the 30-minute Penguin Walk is designed to keep them fit and healthy during the cold months as they hardly get enough exercise by staying indoors especially during winter. They are known to walk as far as 1 kilometer a day towards the sea in a group to catch fish.

A close relative and very similar in looks to Emperor Penguins – what Mumble is – the King Penguins are 2nd only to the Emperor in size. To distinguish, the latter’s orange feathers on the side of their head are colorful and brighter than that of their cousins. Their beaks are also the longest of the whole family of penguins. Though they are known to be the best divers and swim incredibly fast, they, however, saunter on land and are known to slide on their bellies to help them maneuver through the ice and snow.

To survive the severely frigid climate, they are equipped with several unique layers of scale-like feathers to protect them from icy winds and offer a waterproof coat. They also store large amounts of fat that insulate their bodies while also serving as a long-lasting energy source.

What’s interesting is that wild penguins follow the paths between the mountains and during the walk, they were not trained to walk the path, but because they see people like mountains, they automatically follow the path that the people make.

If you happen to be in Hokkaido during the winter, make sure to make your way to Asahiyama Zoo to get a glimpse of these cute chubby birds. It will be worth your while.

Asahikawa

Hokkaido’s second largest city is a good base for those exploring the nearby Daisetsu mountain range and the picturesque Biei-Furano. But because we were there in the dead of winter and we don’t ski, we had other things in mind. We were there for the 58th Asahikawa Winter Festival, its zoo, and ramen.

The Asahikawa Fuyu Matsui

Also known as the Asahikawa Winter Festival, it is an enjoyable fusion of lights, music,


A popular stall to warm the body and soul.

ice and snow sculptures, fireworks, kids activities, and food found in 2 venues.

While it may not have the scale of Sapporo’s festival, it can boast of having the largest snow sculpture in the world in the way of its stage, where all performances are held. The massive sculpture can be found overlooking the Ishikari at the Tokiwa Park near the Asahibashi bridge, where the opening and closing ceremonies are held. To build its main snow sculpture for the festival, the town enlisted the help of their country’s Self Defense Force.

Aside from the Asahibashi site, the Heiwa Dori showcases the ice sculpture competition, where teams from all over the world compete for the best ice sculpture.

Asahiyama Zoo

If truth be told, the videos of the penguin parade were enough to get me to Asahikawa. More of them on my next post because not only does the zoo boast of the Penguins, it is a zoological garden that allows visitors to see the animals from various angles.

Highlights include a glass tunnel through the penguin pool that allows the birds to be seen underwater, many arctic animals such as polar bears, seals and a lot more.

Asahikawa Eats

And of course, a visit to this part of Hokkaido will never be complete without enjoying a bowl of its famous ramen. You’ll find this all over Asahikawa, but we had ours at the Ramen Village on our way back to town from the zoo.

It was a perfect cap to the freezing day at the zoo.

And the freezing weather shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this melon flavored soft served ice cream.

Asahikawa is beautiful during the winter providing an excellent base to bask in all things winter. You will not be disappointed.

Sapporo Snow Festival

On our way to our accommodation from the airport, our cab drove through Susukino to reveal a row of illuminated ice sculpture.  That was our prelude to the Yuki Matsui, internationally known as Sapporo’s Snow Festival.  For seven days every February, Japan’s largest winter event is turned into a winter wonderland of snow stations and ice sculptures.

From a few snow statues created by high school students on its main site, Odori Park in 1950, the festival is now an event visited by millions.  Packed with people walking the slippery path that spans the 1.5km Odori Park showcasing spectacular snow and ice sculptures of different size and shapes from local and international participants.

 

We came across humongous structures such as the Arc de Triumph sculpture and the Taipei Guest House.

 

Some serve as a stage for concerts and other performances.

This giant Cup Noodle that double as a slide is a favorite,

Star War characters R2D2, C3PO and Darth Vader and other cartoon characters make up the fun stuff.

Meanwhile, I am drawn to the smell and the sizzle of beef being grilled on an open barbecue pit, even if we just came from lunch.

Not to be left out are the food stalls of various kinds.  A piece of advice to future attendees, skip lunch that day and head straight to the park.

The row of illuminated ice sculptures that I saw the night before is less dramatic in daylight.

Packed with bars, restaurants, pachinko and red light establishments, Susukino really comes alive upon sundown and so does its displays found on its main street.  We weaved through the sculptures into Ramen Alley for lunch.

The alley has 17 old style ramen shops to choose from.  In a shop randomly selected to fit all 7 of us, we slurped down a bowl of noodles in miso broth topped with seaweed, spring onions, char sou pork, hard-boiled egg, corn and a slice of butter—unique ingredients that make Sapporo’s Ramen worth a try.

The third venue is a multipurpose dome where a variety of events take place inside.  Outside the dome is where the fun is.  Large snow slides and a snow rafting area is set up for the merriment of people of all ages.  Sadly, as the venue is a little away from the city center and is only open until 6 pm.

Useful Info:

Odori Park:  Odori-nishi 1-chome to 12-chome, Chuo-ku

Susukino Venue: Ekimae-dori from Minami 4-Jo to Minami 7-Jo, Chou-ku

Tsudome: Sapporo Sports Facility “Tsudome” Sakaemachi 885-1, Higashi-ku

A Week in Winter Paradise

Credits: Papers by Splendid Finn; border bit by Splendid Finn; Journaling Snippet by Creativity by Crystal; Fresh Glitter Lines by Delicious Scraps; Alpha by Akiloune Designs; Diecut Paper by Creativity by Crystal

Outside the apartment building, snow pile shin high by the sidewalk. The icy ground slippery as hell and the wind bite as we walk to the metro station. From tropical to arctic, my senses went into shock and so did my camera and phone. Anton loves the cold, you see.

Hokkaido is Japan’s largest and northernmost prefecture. With its unspoiled nature, it has attracted many outdoor enthusiasts from skiers and snowboarders in winter to hikers and bikers in summer.  Cold fronts from Siberia dump powdery snow into the island, making Hokkaido a winter paradise for those who love it, like my husband.

This and the stunning natural beauty of the island tend to overshadow the fact the food is excellent

and the history compelling this side of Japan. One of the highlights of this trip was soaking in an open-air onsen amidst the snow.

Come and ogle with me at the ice and snow sculptures that scatter around Hokkaido, take pleasure in some really awesome food, and get in line to catch sight of emperor penguins doing their daily walk — all this we did in a week in Hokkaido, a winter paradise.

Matsumoto

I peered from the balcony of our room, amused by the change of yesterday’s warm hues of autumn.

snow-frm-balcony

Today, I wake up to the white of winter.

Our agenda for the day was to spend it in the castle town of Matsumoto.

snow-on-the-road

The scenery from the bus, now covered with snow, looked different from yesterday.  Then we entered the tunnel and just like that, we were transported back to autumn – quite magical, really.

scenery-enroute

For a moment, I thought I walked into the wardrobe like the characters of the high fantasy novel by C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia.  The wonders of this world continue to amaze me.

The ride from Hirayu to Matsumoto was a gorgeous one-hour journey.  Compared to Takayama and Hirayu, Matsumoto’s bigger roads and taller buildings exude a much modern feel despite having one of Japan’s premier historic castles in its midst.

cityscape

That and the Japanese Alps are the main pulls of the town.

matsumoto-castle-moat

The Matsumoto-jo or Matsumoto Castle, as it is simply known, is one of the most complete and beautiful among Japan’s original castles.

matsumoto-black-walls

The 400-year old castle earned the nickname Karasu-jo, the Crow Castle from its striking black lacquered walls

roof

and its roof that resembles wings spread out, boldly standing out against the magnificent backdrop of the Japanese Alps.

view-from-the-topA view of the perimeter of the city from the 5th floor — the strategic office.

The lofty 98-foot structure can be seen from almost anywhere in the central city which makes it easy to find.

Unlike many of the Japanese castles, which is either built on hills or near a river, Matsumoto was built on a plain.  The extraordinarily high strong stonewall, interlinking walls, gatehouses,

view-of-the-moat-from-the-top

and the moat form an extensive system of defense given the lack of natural defenses the castle was built on.  A fascinating design of the castle, which could have been a strategy to keep the floor safe from the enemies, is a floor hidden from the outside.

matsumoto-from-grounds

The 3rd floor has no windows and sometimes called the “dark floor”.  Another feature that could have “defense” in mind is the steep incline and the high rises of the stairs.  This prevents from climbing fast.  In fact, slippery wooden floorboards and socks (as we had to walk around carrying our shoes in a plastic bag) makes for a terrifying climb on those stairs.

Listed as a National Treasure, this well-preserved castle is a good example of a hirajiro, and many of it is still as it was – the moat, the gate, the various bailey and the sub floors minus, however, the furniture and furnishings.  The tenchu or the keep though holds an armory and weapons museum.

It was a nice (warmer) day well spent exploring a well-preserved castle that provided a glimpse of how it was like during Japan’s feudal past,

cityscape-3

walking the streets of this modest size city showcasing a cozy corner of suburban affluence surrounded by mountains,

sushi

and sampling excellent sushi in between.

snow

And through the same tunnel to Hirayu, we found ourselves back in winter.

Useful Info

Matsumoto Castle
4-1 Marunouchi, Matsumoto City
Opening hours:  8:30-17:00 (entrance closes at 16:30)
Fee:  Adults ¥600; Children: ¥300
* It is a 5 minute bus ride or a 15 minutes walk from the Matsumoto Station

Kamikochi: A glimpse of the Japanese Alps

KamikochiCredits:  Template by Jen Caputo; Papers: Designs by Sarah Bennett, Erica Zane, Gwenipooh Designs. Haynay Designs.

Sometimes a change in plans is a good thing.  We arrived in Hirayu Onsen early.  Our room wasn’t ready yet.  “You may want to go to Kamikochi instead”, the front desk clerk recommended to us after she discouraged a trip to the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway, a two-stage tramway that climbs alongside the Hotaka Mountain Range.  She informed us that it had been raining so the visibility will be bad.  “It will also be very slippery”, she added.  We took her word, left our bags with them and headed to the bus station after lunch.

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Long dubbed as the Japanese Alps, Kamikochi is a pristine mountain valley in the Nagano Prefecture, seated at the foot of the Hida Mountains, deep in the Chukusangaku National Park where the Azusa River flows some 1,500 meters above sea level.

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It is known for its splendid landscape and various hiking trails.  As private vehicles have been prohibited in the park since 1996, only buses or taxis are allowed,

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Kamikochi has become one of the best-protected natural areas of Japan despite the droves of tourists and hikers that flock there.

The scenic bus ride from Hirayu Onsen to the Kamikochi parking lot took all of 30 minutes with a brief stop at Taisho Pond for those wanting to hike to the center of Kamikochi. Since it was drizzling and freezing and we weren’t in proper attire, not to mention that we only had half a day, we passed.

trail-from-taisho

It is the best way to enjoy a day in Kamikochi actually, and on hindsight, I am not sure we made the right decision to forego the hike.

trail-to-bridge

From the parking lot, we took our time and marveled at the wondrous views of some of the tallest peaks of Central Japan’s Northern Alps as we followed the trail to the Kappabashi Bridge.

kappabashi

This wooden suspension bridge is a symbol of Kamikochi with the most gathering of visitors.

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From the bridge, one can see the surrounding mountains, Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake, Myojindake, and the active volcano Yakaedake – all towering summits over 3,000 meters above sea level.

coffee-and-dessert

Though we barely scratched the surface with just half a day, less actually if you take out the time we spent indoors to warm ourselves with coffee and dessert, Kamikochi has instantly become a personal favorite, and I wouldn’t mind spending a few days wandering around should there be a next time.

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So sometimes a change in plans is indeed a good thing.