Everyone loves a little spontaneity, me more so than others. So when no real plans came up over Christmas or New Years, a cheeky white Christmas in Japan. My first white Christmas and my first time in Japan, it’s safe to say I couldn’t sit still on the flight over.
We stayed at the Phoenix Chalet which was a dream. A perfect, cosy winter wonderland at the base of Happo One and Happo 47 ski fields. It’s conveniently central and shuttles run every half hour to and from the chairlifts, everything else (restaurants/bars) are within walking distance. I recommend opting for a Chalet if you’re travelling with more than four people, you’ll need the extra space/homelike accommodation after an exhausting day on the mountains.
If you only take one thing from this post, it’s to EAT LIKE A LOCAL. We had the chalet recommend quite a few restaurants and most of them turned out to be ‘Western’ Japanese restaurants run by tourists (seriously, who puts guacamole on a Japanese menu?!). Most of the best eats in Hakuba are small little restaurants that you can’t google. Trust me, the more authentic the better.
The exception is Zen. Zen is one of the best Soba restaurants in Hakuba, the rest of their menu is just as mouth watering. It’s Japanese tapas style, everything is small and designed to share which lets you try a whole lot more of their extensive menu. I could have had 10 plates of the marinated eggplant!
Ski obviously… Hakuba is blessed with snow, a mean ‘mountains’ of snow! An average snowfall of 11 metres per season makes the fields a skiers paradise with a view to rival anything on pinterest.
Kyoto is everything you could image when you think of traditional Japan. Geishas, tea houses, bamboo forests and a a raid of Shinto and Buddhist temple to visit. If you have friend in Kyoto, see if they can show you the ropes, otherwise find a guide (like we did) and tell him what you want to do. The Japanese are incredibly hospitable people and will happily accommodate you. Fortunately, we had a good friend Toshi to show us the most traditional way of life.
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto. The Hyatt brings it all together: beautiful rooms, attentive English-speaking staff, great onsite restaurants, good facilities and a fine location in the Southern Higashiyama sightseeing district.
Kikunoi Honten – It’s one of the top restaurants in Kyoto, your tastebuds will be flying after eating here. The produce is only rivalled by the service.
Seike – This tofu only degustation restaurant is a must, even for the carnivores. Completely zen and relaxing, Seike will give you an added appreciation for Japanese tradition.
Gontaro – It’s busy, so expect to waiting for a table but I promise it’s worth it! Famous house made buckwheat and soba noodle soup hit the spot, especially during the freezing temperatures.
Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, one of the most visited spots in Kyoto and for good reason, it’s breathtaking. Temples! There are numerous but be sure to visit Ryoanji with the famous Rock Garden. Sample the never ending list of matcha and green teas at Ippodo Tea Shops, be sure to bring a few home! Drink copious amounts of sake at Nihonshu Bar Asakura and after try your luck at having a drink at a Geisha House, it’s expensive but so worth it to experience something very few people get to. Word to the wise, they speak minimal (if any) English so you will need a translator. You can even dress up as a Geisha go for an afternoon stroll.