I split with the Jenna, James, and Sarah in the morning and headed to Yuzawa, activating my JR pass along the way. Throughout the trip, I had been a bit skeptical about the much anticipated J-Pow, that is, some of the best skiing in the entire world according to ski magazines and websites I had been following. However, thus far there was no snow and the weather was hardly cold enough for snow to last should there be a storm. I dozed off on the train and woke up in Yuzawa. I looked out of the windows in shock. There were several FEET of snow. I was astounded that just an hour train ride out of the city and into the mountains could bring me to a place with such drastically different weather. As I scanned the station for my bus, I ran into a Chinese father and his daughter. They told me they were also planning on heading to Naeba Ski Resort and we got on the bus together. Meanwhile, a blizzard was building around us and as we drove up to the resort, we watched the mountains of snow on either side of the slopes grow above the windows of the bus. The traffic lights were covered with snow so it was impossible to tell whose turn it was to go. Thankfully, our driver seemed to have everything under control and only skidded out one time. I made it to my guest house in one piece.
The guest house was a cozy place buried in a blanket of snow. The owner was a Singaporean couple (goodness knows how they were surviving the cold) and they spoke perfect English. They set me up with a ticket deal and cheap rentals. I cozied up for the rest of the afternoon to ride out the blizzard as half of the ski area was closed. Later that evening, my newfound Chinese friend messaged me and asked if I would be willing to teach his daughter a ski lesson in the morning. I happily agreed to meet them at 8:30 am the next morning.
1/30 Naeba lessons
I met my student at 8:30 the next morning, excited and ready to go. Quickly realizing I had overdressed, I looked out over the blindingly white slopes on a different place than the night before. The mountains disappeared into the horizon and blue skies contrasted starkly with the white snow fields. My student was a first time 4 year-old and although we was excited to ski, she was nervous and tired easily. I taught her for two hours but found it difficult to capture her full attention and found myself using all my teaching tricks to keep her occupied. But she learned to stop and (sort of) turn by the end of our lesson! Her dad was thrilled and although he couldn’t ski, he had a great time photographing our lesson.
The rest of the day I had to myself to explore the slopes. Elaine, my host sister from Taiwan, had recommended Naeba but she had warned me that the terrain was not the most exciting in all of Japan and that there were less trails than Bretton Woods. However, I was happily surprised. The mountain was very tall and the whole upper section was open for free skiing through a snowfield. Although the conditions declined throughout the day, there was fresh powder from the day before and very few people on the slopes. I was flying down the mountain (in not so great ski gear) but nevertheless flying! I even crashed a few times, something I haven’t done in the past few years while skiing. There were several lifts but I spent most of my time skiing off the gondola because there was never a line and I had access to most of the mountain from the top.
After an exhilarating day, I headed back to the hotel for some dinner and a shower. Much to my excitement, I realized the guesthouse was actually equipped with a Japanese style bathhouse! There were showers and a heated pool to soak in with a beautiful view of the resort. I went to bed warm and cozy, ready for day two.
2/1 The Dragondola
The second day was a bit colder and cloudier, unfortunately blocking the views of the mountains in the horizon. Nevertheless, I was up early and ready to head to Kagura, the ski mountain connected to Naeba by the longest gondola in Japan. I only had to upgrade my tickets by 10 USD to access this whole new mountain!
I got on the second gondola of the morning and rode for 20 minutes to Kagura. I was so high above the ground and it was rather nerve wrecking to be alone so high above the mountains. When I arrived at Kagura, I began to ski my way across the resort. The mountain was huge! It put Sunday River to shame I must say. I finally made my way to the area I’d been searching for; an out of bounds tree skiing field. I was a bit nervous on my first ride up because I discovered that most other skiiers had brought skins and backpacks but soon realized that they were headed up to the higher peaks that the lifts didn’t reach. The powder was above my knees and it was incredible. I crashed a couple of times (which can be partly attributed to my non-powder skis) but skied until the lift closed at 12.
I spent the rest of the day slowly making my way back to Naeba along the mountain, trying to hit as many trails as possible. Unfortunately I didn’t have an English map so there was some guesswork in the plan but thankfully I didn’t get lost. By mid-afternoon the snow picked up and I had to take a break because I couldn’t see the slopes any longer. The snow never fully went away so I headed back not too much later. One very cool thing about the lifts was that they were enclosed with a plastic bubble to keep the wind and weather out. I’d love to see more of those back home!
That evening back at the guesthouse, my dad met me! Although it had only been one month since I’d last seen him, it felt longer and it was good to be back with my family. We ate dinner at a delicious restaurant just around the corner and excitedly talked plans for the next few weeks of travel, as well as news from back home.
2/2 Dad takes on Naeba
We woke up the next morning with a plan to head back to Kagura, but the weather got the best of us and closed the gondola down. Additionally, the Naeba gondola was shut down and the lower lifts were the only thing left open. Although initially disappointed that I couldn’t show my dad where I’d been skiing, I was ultimately grateful because the blizzard was much larger than anticipated. The wind was whipping snow in our faces and it was hard to see. Despite this, the skiing was still phenomenal. We explored all the trails that I hadn’t done at Naeba because I had been skiing at the top. These trails presented new challenges with even deeper snow, little to no visibility, and unexpected moguls and divots. We both took several tumbles and my dad insisted that I was trying to kill him on several occasions. One time we were convinced we were about to get dragged into an imaginary avalanche but we made it to the bottom in one piece and discovered that the avalanche was a figment of our imagination.
Later in the afternoon, we headed back to the guesthouse to change and gather our things. Then we said goodbye to Naeba and took a bus back to the train station, and began our journey to Kyoto. I joked that I only had one week of winter but it was a memorable one that made up for the humid rainy weather in Taiwan!
2/3 Kyoto Shrine Day
We arrived in Kyoto late on Friday and slept in a bit Saturday morning. We had two days in Kyoto and decided to spend the first one traveling around to all of the Shrines in and around the city. We stopped at one right near our hotel on the way to breakfast before heading to the Golden Pavilion or Kinkaku-ji. Although the park was quite crowded, we were overwhelmed with the serenity and beauty of the temple just sitting on the edge of a small pond. The reflection in the water was mesmerizing and despite the crowds I felt a sort of calmness. Although the temple was reconstructed several times because of fires, the original design dates back to the late 1300s.
Our next stop was the Bamboo Garden. I had seen so many pictures and heard many stories so I had high expectations for this place. Although it was beautiful, it was so crowded with tourists and somewhat underwhelming. We did walk through a beautiful traditional Japanese garden on the way back that was beautiful however! Nevertheless, it was a good adventure and our short visit gave us time for perhaps the most impressive shrine in Kyoto, the Fushimi Shrine.
We reached the Fushimi Shrine in early afternoon. This shrine is truly an architectural marvel. There are hundreds of orange arches leading up a mountain winding through graveyards and smaller shrines along the way. The hike was longer than expected and after a few hours of fast walking we were quite tired and hungry. We headed back to Kyoto near our hotel and tried to make one last shrine stop but unfortunately the gates were closed for the night. We decided to head to Gion for dinner and get some Yakitori from a small restaurant in one of the many alleys of the old city area. It was a cozy atmosphere for a chilly night. Afterwords we explored the city a bit and and we were even lucky enough to catch sight of a few Geisha secretively slipping through the streets.
We headed out early in the morning to catch a train to Nara, the old capital of Japan. We had just grabbed our seats when suddenly I heard a voice call out, “Becca?!” It was Helsa and her mom Jane, my Taiwanese host family. We had been planning to meet up for dinner but I didn’t realize that we were both heading in the same direction. Unfortunately they were not going Nara and instead heading to the Fushimi Shrine but we made plans to get some good Japanese kobe and wagyu beef for dinner.
When we arrived in Nara, we were suddenly flocked by Japanese people asking to be our tour guide for the day. We were bewildered by the number of people willing to take us around the city and explain the history to us in English for free! They were stationed at every temple and shrine along the way and brought a binder filled with pictures of some of the statues inside of the closed temples. We stopped at the Kofuku-ji temple, the Tōdai-ji temple, the Kasuga Shrine, and several others.
As we walked through the temples and shrines, we noticed a somewhat unusual crowd of people clustered in the front of several temples in what appeared to be a line. At one temple, we witnessed Geisha dancing and at another there was a large bonfire right in front of the temple! Although we didn’t figure out what was happening that day, when I headed home I looked it up on Wikipedia as any good researcher would and discovered that it was the weekend of the bean throwing festival. This always happens right before the start of spring in Japan, and beans are thrown to symbolically purify temples and homes by removing evil spirits.
My favorite part of Nara however wasn’t the temples and shrines, it was the deer. As we walked through Nara Park, we discovered deer everywhere. They were walking right up to us and sniffing around, hoping for a treat. There were ladies selling deer crackers so we bought a couple and we were instantly surrounded by deer all begging for crackers. The way they begged was quite unique, they would bow there heads repeatedly until we fed them a cracker, a Japanese custom of saying thank you. They were so cute! We spend the rest of the day being followed by deer, even all the way up to the gates of temples. The reason for the deer abundance is because deer are seen as sacred messengers of the gods.
That night we met up with Helsa and Jane in Gion for a last delicious meal of kobe and wagyu beef, a famous Japanese dish. It was a perfect end to both of our adventures in Japan as Jane and Helsa headed back to Taiwan the next morning and we were off to the Philippines the next day. Goodbye for now Japan but I will be back!