Winter in Japan – Day 1 Houston to Hakuba

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Vacation time yeayeayea! We had gone to a good friend’s wedding in Thailand two years ago and had to layover in Tokyo, Japan. We opted to spend a couple of nights in Tokyo on the way home and absolutely loved the city, so we had made a commitment then to revisit Japan in the near future and properly explore Tokyo as well as a bit more of Japan. In the end our plan would take us to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagano for skiing!

We set off at 5 AM CST on Saturday morning to take our 6:30 AM flight to Tokyo by way of Calgary. The Calgary transition was smooth and both flights were on time. We were able to take some melatonin and Benadryl and get some decent sleep on the 12 hour Calgary – Tokyo flight. When we arrived at Narita airport we made the first transition via train to Ueno Station (~30 minute ride) with no issues, but we had some trouble trying to buy Shinkansen (bullet train) tickets to Nagano – our credit card wasn’t being accepted by the ticket machine. We ended up having to wait in line to speak with an agent and missed the first available train, which would have allowed us a one hour earlier arrival time in Hakuba. On the Shinkansen we had a cool view of Mt. Fuji and another distant mountain range before nightfall. The Shinkansen gets up to 200 mph which is pretty neat, unfortunately it was pitch black outside so we couldn’t see much zipping by.

Once we arrived in Nagano we had 30 minutes to catch the bus to Hakuba, or we’d end up waiting another two hours for the next bus. We figured it would be an easy transition… turns out the bus station only takes cash and we hadn’t exchanged for any yen yet (oops), we tried an ATM at the station earlier but the transaction was declined. Ryan ran across the street to try a different ATM to find that the debit card was again getting denied. Amanda had set a travel notice with Bank of America before we left, turns out that only applies to her specific cards even though they’re for the same accounts. After attempting to call the Bank of America fraud department and waiting on hold, it was almost time for the bus to leave, Ryan raced back across the street to grab Amanda’s debit card; we were able to get cash, pay for the tickets and run to the bus at the last minute. Once on the bus we thankfully had no further issues and were able to make it to Hotel Hakuba Hifumi at about 8:30 PM local time, 25 hours after we left Houston.

The hotel was so awesome! They completely honor traditional Japanese customs but have modern amenities. There is a designated “genkan” area for taking off outdoor shoes, the hotel provides slippers that are worn from the entrance of the hotel up to the hotel room and throughout the interior (including the dining room). BUT once you get to the bedroom, you must remove the slippers at the doorway and only wear sock-feet throughout the sleeping area. For someone not accustomed to this tradition, it is very difficult to remember, but prudent to try out of respect for their culture. Hotel Hakuba Hifumi is an onsen hotel which means they have public and private baths fed by natural hot springs. We chose a room that has a private hot spring-fed, outdoor wooden bath that made for perfect relaxation with the hot water and cold winter air. The staff were so accommodating, they welcomed us with Japanese green tea then quickly got us checked into our room.

The in-house restaurant serves traditional Japanese breakfasts and well-reviewed, multiple-course dinners that are amazing. When we arrived the first night, the restaurant had already closed; we were hungry and tired after 25 hours of travel and were initially pretty bummed, but we decided to walk out into the little ski town of Happo to find something to eat and ended up having a great night. We found a small restaurant/bar called Kihachi and sat down at the last available table to eat. Within like 90 seconds of sitting down, the group of three Japanese people about our age sitting at the table next to us started talking to us. They were pretty drunk on sake already and it made for a very entertaining dinner – they knew enough English for all of us to carry on a conversation, and wanted to know everything about who we were and why we were there. They ended up helping us order food and drinks and showed us how you should pour sake for each other, not for yourself. So we had new friends Yo, Kana, and Ayaka from Tokyo and made plans to meet up with them on the mountain the next day. Unfortunately, the next day, we had some crappy weather and weren’t able to meet up with them before they had to leave.

After we got back to the room we decided to try out our private onsen (hot spring bath tub). We filled the tub with water straight from the hot spring then soaked and relaxed – it was incredible and we knew it would be even more so after long days on the slopes.


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