Friday, January 28, 2011

Last Day in Niseko

And so all good things must come to an end, and with that the snowboarding leg of this journey. Its been a great 12 days, with variable conditions all the way through (sunshine, blizzard etc). We didn't get any fresh snow the last few days, but its snowing heavily tonight (if only we had a few more days!).
Snowing in Main Street
Gyu Bar aka "The Fridge"
Australia Day was fun. The day was spent at Moiwa with a combination of drills in the morning and gate training in the afternoon, all to the soundtrack of the Triple J Hottest 100 countdown, which was streaming live across the resort PA system (thanks Tracey for arranging it and Shinya Akio for agreeing, best mountain staff ever). The afternoon we returned to the lodge for drinks and a bbq, and found a few fun jibs which were built that afternoon out the front.

Since it hasn't snowed today me and Kyle rode the Hanazono park. The halfpipe also opened up recently, so it was cool to see some awesome riders tearing it up. There was also a rail jam in town tonight.
Rail Jam in Vale Carpark
Up tomorrow morning at 3:30am for the bus to the airport.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Back to Grand Hirafu

It hasn't snowed much the last few days, so we've been hanging out around the parks for most of the day. Yesterday morning we did hike the summit though and got some decent photos due to intermittent sunshine, followed by some fresh lines from the peak.
Hiking to the Summit
Its snowing again on and off, hopefully another pow day tomorrow for Australia Day :)

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Loaf Lounge in Kutchan

Tonight we headed into Kutchan for dinner and a few drinks. The bus dropped us fairly close to an isakaya where we loaded up on cheap Japanese food. A few beers, snow crab pizza and a number of gyoza later and it was on to the Loaf Lounge, a local bar which serves beer and munchies, and has a table tennis table, large bowl and a half pipe, with a number of skateboards available to use. This is a great place to kick back after a big day. Beer and skateboarding don't mix though.
Table Tennis
This guy had a broken back but still skating?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fun Times in Moiwa

We've spent the last two days riding Moiwa in some fairly special conditions. Moiwa is a small resort approx 20mins drive from Niseko Grand Hirafu, and comprises a double chair and a high speed hooded quad chair. Despite the limited number of lifts, the area accessible is good, and we were able to find fresh lines through to last lifts. 
Moiwa Ski Area (from base)
Its been about -10 deg C each day, and snowing on and off. We've had about 20cm each night, so its been perfect for some powder riding in the trees.
Yesterday morning we hit some new areas with our guide. Hiring a guide for the day is a good idea if your new to a mountain and in a group (as they can be expensive), especially if theres been plenty of fresh, as they know all the best places, can lead you to the best exits from areas, and advise where not to go (i.e. too far down into the valley where you need to hike out). We then had gate drills in the afternoon, which was useful but cold, with a lot of sitting around on the snow and riding the double chair during the activity.

We could have done with a guide this afternoon, as me and Kyle went a bit low (almost to the river), and had to hike out through thigh deep powder for 20mins. Lucky for us (unlucky for others) someone else had done the same thing, and when we came across their broken track it was much easier going around through the valley and into the carpark.
They also have an awesome dog working for the ski patrol. Rest day tomorrow, so heading for Kutchan tonight to check out Loaf Lounge.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Grand Hirafu Pow Pow

Spent the last few days riding in Niseko. Conditions have been excellent, with light snow up until this afternoon, and about 20cm fresh each night. This afternoon I saw the first sun since arriving in Hokkaido, and we were able to take a few awesome pictures of Mt Yotei and the surroundings.
Mt Yotei in Background
Tommorrow on to Moiwa for some drills and hopefully some powder riding!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Hokkaido AcTiON!

The trip from Chitose to Niseko was fun. I ended up catching the JR rail service, with two changes (Sapporo and Otaru). Didn't have a ticket for half the journey but was able to sort it out when I arrived at Kutchan railway station. From Kutchan it was an easy 20min bus up to Grand Hirafu welcome center, and used the internet there to find the phone number of the lodge so they could come and find me.

Waiting for the train
Chitose JR Station
The snows been falling fairly constant since I've been here, with randomly interspersed moments of what some would call 'puke-age'. It hasn't dumped as such, but the two days so far have been spent riding shin to knee deep powder through the trees, with plenty of top ups from the accumulation on the trees and the sky. Its getting easier to get around town too, as many of the roads were dead ends due to snow build up, and the local crews have been working hard to improve access. Last night involved a trip down to the Kutchan supermarket for supplies for the week. I've purchased some pork (I think?), chicken, and other supplies to make a few fresh meals. Its fun trying to interpret the labels on packaging. Imported spirits are cheaper than beer which is odd. Someone said it was due to tax on beer being higher. You can also get powdered green tea here, which I'm going to try and hunt down when back in Sydney.
Outside the Lodge
Looking up the Road (lights in distance for night skiing)
All up a fun few days so far in Niseko!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Chitose (I missed the bus)

Tokyo's Haneda Airport domestic terminal two is great. They have an outdoor observation deck which stretches along the top roof section of the building, and is integrated with some restaurants and cafes. The area is darkened at night, and the roof area covered with hundreds of taxiway lights which change slowly over time.

Observation Deck, Haneda Airport Domestic Terminal 2
Haneda Airport, with Tokyo Skyline in Distance
I arrived into New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido around 2230, and hoped to meet up with the group staying at the lodge who were arriving around the same time but no such luck. It was at this point I realised I probably should have booked tickets on one of the buses to Niseko. Reminded me of this classic song from the early 90's. 

The airport closes at 2300, and as I sat down to find a hostel on the internet, the lady from the information counter came over to advise me that I couldn't stay in the airport past this time, and the last JR train was leaving very soon. She literally ran with me to the JR station. I got the train through, and am spending my first Hokkaido night in Chitose Hyper Hotel. There's a fair bit of snow around on the streets here in town, so it looks like it might be epic up on the mountains.
Outside Chitose JR Station

Shibuya and Harajuku

Shibuya is an intense area lit by electronic signs advertising the latest in music and fashion. There are a number of department stores in this area catering to the populaces diverse tastes. 109 store (female) and 109-2 store (male) are two large department stores which draw a number of the Tokyo's younger crowd. The area is also famous for Shibuya crossing, an intersection of 4 roads, which is arguably the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world. Each time the little green man illuminates, people flood the street and somehow manage to make it across without any collisions (no rushing or shoving due to the considerate nature of everyone here).
Shibuya Crossing
To the East of Shibuya is Harajuku, an area famous for the funky youth who dress up in the latest goth/lolita/punk/visual kei/decora/cosplay character and walk the streets. It is also home to Takeshita which sells a multitude of fashion items and buzzes with activity on the weekends. Its a great place to pick up some clothing, and with trends in Tokyo changing so quickly, you can usually bag a bargain. Keep an eye out for the 390 Yen stores too, which have clothing, accessories and trinkets for the price of a cheap takeaway meal.
Takeshita St, Harajuku
Tonight I'm off to Hokkaido for some snowboarding fun!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Roppongi - land of party and tabasco!

This evening I met up with a few friends from the hostel and we explored Roppongi, an area known for its nightclubs and party times. If your heading to this area for a 'big night', the prices tend to be on the higher side than other areas of Tokyo, and there is definitely a greater degree of foreign influence. 

The first bar (and only as it turns out) bar we checked out was Geronimo Shot Bar, which is located right on Roppongi crossing. The bar had an American bartender and all the clientele were westerners, so it was like stepping through a portal into some poky sports bar in America, but without the sports. Beers start at 900 Yen, Shots, Cocktails and Wine are 1000 Yen and Champagne is available by the bottle. If you drink 15 shots here in one session you can have your name put up on a plaque on the wall. There are hundreds (thousands?) of plaques already in the bar, signifying long distant pre-hangover good times. Happy hour is also available here from 6-9pm with half price drinks available.
Roppongi Square
We had a beer at Geronimo then left to find another bar (seems this was turning into a pub crawl), but we did not manage to find anything with a decent happy hour (we did start late though). We found ourselves at the sbarro Italian food restaurant just down from Shibuya crossing where a competition ensued between the 4 of us shotting Tabasco sauce (rules - no chaser, first one to not take their shot forfeits the money they put down). A memorable end to the evening in any case. 


This afternoon I visited Shinjuku, which has a number of landmark attractions, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, from which you can visit the 45th Floor observation levels of both the north and south tower. At the observation deck level there are signs describing the construction of the building, which is unique given there are no internal pillars, rather the building consists of a number of box shaped supports, which are held together by 'super-beams' every 10 floors. Theres also numerous other buildings around of interesting design.

Cool building in Shibuya
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
View from the Top


This morning I checked out the Omote-Sando area. The first stop was the spiral building which is just outside one of the exits from Omote-Sando station, within which there was a gallery exhibiting a number of fashion items. The rear of the building features a round room with a spiral shaped walkway encircling it, which I assume is what gives the building its name. At the top of the walkway there was a shop selling designer homewares and fine stationery.

The main street in Omote-Sando features a number of designer stores such as Louis Vuitton, Prada and Chanel. Walking down to Omotesando Hills, I stumbled across a guy gutting a fish on the street (not sure what kind of fish), but he removed what looked to be a baby fish from inside it, along with a number of organs, with an interested group of onlookers gathering around.

Roppongi Hills Shop

Lunch was had at Hiroba, a cafe which features organic vegetarian food (with some meat/fish options). The lunch buffet was good value at 1260 Yen and recommended. Left feeling full and satisfied. The cafe itself is located down the stairs (below ground level) of the crayon house building 1 block away from Omote-Sando station.

Lunch at Hiroba

Friday, January 14, 2011

Adventure(s) in Yokohama

Yokohama is the next largest city in Japan after Tokyo, and is reachable from the centre of the city in about 30mins on the (Tōkaidō line (JR)) (two JR lines from east Tokyo take you to Yokohama, Tōkaidō and the Keihin-Tōhoku Line - the trains running on the Tōkaidō line are much quicker than those on the latter). On advice from the guide, I got off at Sakuragichō (change at Yokohama), and was impressed by the super design of the bayside area of the city. This precinct is known as Mirato Mirai 21, and is home to Japan's tallest building - the Landmark Tower.
Landmark Tower, Yokohama
The information booth is directly on your left as you exit the station from the east exit. Yes it is actually there, with my hazy morning head I somehow thought it had been removed, and proceeded to explore Yokohama without a map or any kind of directions. 

Yokohama, as it is situated on a bay, has a number of marine attractions including the Yokohama Port Museum, sail training ship Nippon Maru and Osanbashi Pier. 

I visited the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum, which is located in the Mirato Mirai 21 area, behind landmark tower. The lower floor consists mostly of space and marine technology exhibits, with a history of Japanese rocketry and marine science developments. The upper floors house sustainable technology exhibits, energy (nuclear, renewable, coal, natural gas), a CAD design station where you can design vehicles individually or as a team (as a challenge game), and a flight simulator. The museum is directed more towards elementary and high school students but is a worthwhile visit if you have some time.
Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum
I spent way too much time in the museum so did not see much else of Yokohama (also aided by the fact I did not have any kind of map). Afterwards I visited (....) for some Okonomiyaki and Gyoza. This restaurant has Okonomiyaki in a number of varieties, with various fillings. If you are in Japan be sure to visit an Okonomiyaki restaurant!

Following dinner it was time to return to Tokyo, for a few quiet beers. Yokohama is a cool city, ensure if you are travelling here that you have a map, as things are quite spread out and there are a number of museums and attractions.
Yokohama Mirato Mirai 21 Area By Night

Thursday, January 13, 2011

On to Tokyo

The flight out of Kuala Lumpur was great. Malaysian Airlines is an excellent airline, offered juice then some beer shortly after takeoff, then a quality meal, and a further refreshment before landing. 
Leaving KL
Rolled into Narita airport train station then commenced the task of working out which train to catch to get to the Sakura hostel. The stations staff were most helpful given my ultra-limited understanding of Japanese (that being how to say thanks). After wandering the backstreets of Asakusa trying to read my scrawled directions hastily written down at Kuala Lumpur airport. I had thoughts of not finding the place and sleeping in my bag until the morning, but the initiative was not lost, and paid dividends in the end with welcoming staff and a warm bed once a passing cyclist pointed me in the right direction. 
Sakura Hostel, Asakusa
Considered also sampling some of the local ales from the vending machine but decided retiring to sleep was more wise. Sakura hostel is located about 15 min walk from Asakusa station. The location is easy once you know the way, but finding it the first time can be hard (like many other addresses in Japan given the addressing system).

The next day was a sleep in followed by a visit to the local Asakusa sights. Sensoji temple is prominent and is surrounded by gardens, reached after passing through the giant outer gate known as Kaminarimon, and the inner gate Hōzōmon.
Sensō-ji Temple
Pagoda near Sensō-ji Temple
After checking out the gardens for a while, we retired to the Hostel for a quick beer, before heading to lunch. Lunch included katsu don (crumbed pork on rice), a beer, then a box of sake. A number of businessmen were lunching in the same establishment, whom Florent (friend from hostel, he's from New Caledonia) struck up some conversation.
Lunch spot
Businessmen at Lunch
The afternoon was spent checking out Akihabara, a district whose businesses consist mainly of selling new and used electronics, music, movies, anime, and probably the biggest collection of 'lifestyle costumes' I've ever seen. Akihabara is a must visit if you are heading to Tokyo, and there are a number of good deals on electronic goods, although lonely planet says the deals in Singapore can be better.
m's Lifestyle Store
Downtown Akihabara
Yokohama tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Shaken and stirred simultaneously

Today got off to a bit of a slow start. Rose around 1030 and met up with a few others to venture towards the Batu Caves, which are approx 13km on the train north of town (RM1 each way from KL Sentral). The Sentul-Pel Klang train line was recently extended (Apr 2010) to run right up to the caves precinct, whereas before access was via bus or taxi. Simple transportation options were appreciated,  given the number of fruit tingles consumed in the wee hours of the morning at the Reggae Bar (Chinatown).
Reggae Bar in the Wee Hours (from the minds eye, or whatever?)
The Batu caves are a limestone landmark which rises abruptly out of otherwise flat terrain. The initial component consists of approx 200 stairs (although we weren't counting). There is a snack stall at the top of the stairs selling drinks which the guys haul up the stairs by the case, and inside the caves there are a number of religious structures. 
Outside Batu Caves
Inside the main cave
Theres also a number of monkeys which inhabit the stair area on the way up, and who also enjoy the regular flow of tourists providing them with salted snacks (and the occasional carbonated beverage). Hold onto your stuff as with all monkeys they are known to pinch electronic goods.
The train ride back was intense(ly slow), likely due to non-peak services, and rumbling stomachs. Trains run every 30 minutes from the terminus station, but they also tend to stop regularly for longer periods. After a couple of hours of recharging we headed to the theme park at Berjaya Times Square. This shopping mall is insane, 12 floors of retail intensity packed into a building that also houses a roller coaster a hotel, and a number of offices.
Berjaya Times Square
About 7 of the floors?
I do not recommend riding the DNA Mixer if you have eaten in the last hour. Probably the most nauseating ride I've been on, do ride it though, its 'fun'! The roller coaster here is great too, with a hidden invert and a loop.
Rollercoaster inside Berjaya Times Square
DNA Mixer - treat with caution ;)
And the bumper cars are a classic, and run for ages too. Well worth a visit if your in KL, tickets to the theme park are RM38, which gives you a wrist band that lasts the entire day (pass outs are permitted also, passing out however may occur involuntarily following a ride of the DNA Mixer).

Back to the Reggae Bar tonight for a Pina Colada or two.