Winter in Japan – Day 4 Sunshine on the Slopes

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We weren’t sure if we would ski another day at Happo One or not since we had to checkout at 10 AM and make it to Tokyo at some point today. But we still had our ski rentals and determined that if we woke up to sun and blue skies we would have to hit the slopes (we had experienced the slosh and rain on day 1, the all-day snow fall on day 2, but hadn’t really seen the sun from the mountain at all). Jet-lag affected both of us this morning so we were up at 4 AM, we had plenty of time to stretch out our sore ski muscles and get our suitcases all packed up before 8 AM breakfast. Again, we both enjoyed the traditional Japanese breakfast at the hotel (miso soup, matcha, grilled fish, steamed rice, sesame pickled veggies, poached egg, tofu with steamed veggies). Then checked out of our room and headed for the slopes. At checkout they alerted us that, even though we’d checked out of our room, we’d still be able to use the public men’s and women’s onsens in the hotel to relax and bathe after skiing (score!).

We reached the slope around 10 AM and found out that the half day lift ticket would be good until 1 PM. We started with the Sakka lift for beginners again, took a series of green runs across the mountain, throwing in one red (intermediate slope) to push ourselves a little more on our last day. They have a few green runs that are quite long, crisscrossing back and forth across the mountain for incredible scenic views, which were even more appreciated on this day with clear skies and visibility for miles. We made our way around to Kokusai lift to repeat the red slope we had braved the previous day and ran it a couple of times before deciding to head up even higher on the mountain. We saw a series of red runs that went almost all the way down the Nakiyama side of the mountain (the area we’d started at on day 1 and felt a little out of our element).

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The final lift that was open to the highest point reachable on the mountain today had a notice in front of it “only advanced runs from here”; we read it, made some jokes, then disregarded it and rode the lift (Alpen Quad) anyway. There is actually another lift, Grat Quad, after this one but it was not operating today, though skiers and boarders were making the climb by foot to start from the very top. Once we got off Alpen Quad lift we were mesmerized by the views, then instantly regretful as Ryan pointed out that we were the only individuals riding rental equipment in this area – AKA we had no business being here. After a little more investigation, we realized that they had only groomed the black (advanced) side of the Riesen Grat course and, as indicated at the base of the lift, advanced courses were the only option from here (oops?). We joked about riding the lift down but decided to avoid that shame by conquering the course in front of us – HA!

We found a narrow, less steep entry to the main course, tightened our boots and pizza’d our way down the entry path, terrified every second that we would plunge off the narrow sides or cause someone else to. A few minutes later we were in the thick of the advanced Riesen Grat Course, we took it slow and steady and made it down to the base of the Alpen Quad. We hugged and thanked our lucky stars before consulting the map and picking back up on the series of red options that now existed before us. It took us another 30 minutes to make our way down the mountain but these courses were an appropriate challenge level for us where we felt comfortable experimenting with more speed and difficulty. When we reached the bottom near Nakiyama, it was shortly after noon and we decided to call it a day. We were really happy to have experienced such a beautiful day (sunny and 25-30 degrees), there was still powder on the ground that had fallen over night, it was not icy or slick, and we were warm (maybe too much) in our gear and sunshine. We had pushed our limits and enjoyed the challenges, however terrifying they were at moments.

We caught the shuttle back to Woody’s ski rental shop, dropped off our equipment then went back to the hotel for onsen and refresh before heading to Tokyo. There are 3 public onsens at Hotel Hakuba Hifumi (men’s, women’s and one for private reservations) which we hadn’t really explored since we had the private onsen in our hotel room. There is a large onsen on the second floor and smaller one on the first floor – they switch each day to have women upstairs one day then downstairs the next day. And the 3rd smaller public onsen is on the first floor and available for hotel guests to reserve in 1 hour time slots – we peeked in when it was un-occupied and it was actually very similar to the one in our room so we were glad to have opted for that luxury since we put it to good use daily throughout our stay. The 3rd onsen was reserved already so we went to our respective gender onsens and were both relieved to be the only patrons for the hour or so that we relaxed in the hot spring bath. Next to the bath there are individual stall type areas with a small bench seat, shampoo, conditioner, body soap and a faucet – the idea is that you use the stall to wash your body off before entering the public bath clean to soak in the hot spring and rejuvenate then go back to the stall to use hair products before toweling off. I can’t imagine having done this with multiple other women in the same bath with me, but after a day of skiing I would have happily joined others to seek the comfort and relaxation that the onsen spring water offers.

After our onsen sessions we took the hotel shuttle to the Happo Bus Terminal where we caught an hour and fifteen minute bus ride to Nagano Station then purchased Shinkansen (bullet train) tickets from Nagano to Tokyo. The next train left in 10 minutes but we were so hungry since we hadn’t eaten lunch, we bought tickets for one hour later and found an udon shop at the station. At the udon shop you could select from baskets of tempura sides, we tried the tempura octopus (quite tough and not as enjoyable as grilled octopus we’d had in the past), and a sweet egg roll type food filled with rice and spices. Ryan got a pork hot udon and Amanda tried a beef hot udon, both were topped with broth, an egg, and green onion. We were so hungry we would’ve eaten anything at this point but this udon really hit spot! Then we grabbed to-go coffees before hopping on the Shinkansen. The train got us to Tokyo Station around 6:20 then we switched to the JR Yamanote rail to Shibuya. It was basically rush hour so the JR rail cars were packed with commuters, we were quite relieved to be rolling our small luggage at this point (yes, we both packed in carry on suit cases for ease of travel). We hopped off at Shibuya Station, scrambled with our luggage across the “Shibuya Shuffle” (busiest intersection in Tokyo and rumored busiest in the world, check out the linked video to sample the chaos) just a few blocks away to our AirBnB rental.

After dropping off our luggage, we rested for a bit before mustering up the energy to check out the neighborhood and find some food. Shibuya is a great neighborhood, it has become a hot spot for the younger crowd and is a hub for shopping and entertainment. Shibuya is located on the southwest side of Tokyo and is within a 30 minute train ride to all the major wards we wanted to visit, so it was a perfect base camp for our stay. It’s great for that Tokyo “wow” factor, particularly at night. LED billboards are everywhere and it’s packed with people bustling in every direction through winding streets. One thing about the Tokyo crowd that stands out is that everyone is dressed sharp as hell. Men & women, teenagers to elderly… badass style. Makes you feel like a real scrub when you’ve packed light and have like three outfits you keep wearing. We quickly realized there was no shortage of places to eat as we wandered around all of the nearby streets – each restaurant has pictures of their dishes out front so it makes it easy to understand what you will find inside. Amanda was craving some dumplings (gyoza) and steamed buns and after about 30 minutes of mesmerized wandering and gawking at our surroundings, we found a place that we later realized was a Chinese restaurant. The restaurant was in a basement and was pretty mediocre, but it had been awhile since we’d eaten so were pretty content. They were playing some crazy game show on TV that we couldn’t stop watching, and the commercials almost all involved a goofy dance of some kind, Japanese TV is wildly entertaining even if you don’t know what they’re saying. After our meal of steam buns, gyoza, egg roll, some sort of sesame ball, and something like a not-sweet rice pudding, we went straight back to the apartment and went to sleep after a long, tiring day.

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