THE IRRESISTIBLE PUZZLE THAT IS JAPAN
What is it about Japan that is so fascinating? There is a mystique – an aura of mystery or mystical power – about this nation. Japan is complicated, compelling, and sometimes unfathomable. It is at once ancient and ultra modern; tranquil and frenetic; ferociously entrepreneurial and unfailingly familial; gracious and demanding.
This country of islands is renowned for its geographical and physical beauty, from the symbolic and iconic Mount Fuji to the turquoise waters of Okinawa. It is revered for its centuries-old intricate arts, from flower arranging and tea ceremony and origami to the subtle movements of the Buyo dancer, the poetry of the Haiku master, and the mesmerizing refinement and aesthetic of the Geisha. It is studied for its Samurai Warrior history; to the bottomless depths of Zen Buddhism and the disciplined martial art rituals of karate and kendo.
This writer recently visited Japan for only the second time in over thirty years. While I will later elaborate on something that has changed since my visit in 1983, I am grateful that one particular aspect of Japan remains intact: the kindness and sensitivity of the Japanese people. I have a dear friend who moved to Tokyo from the U.S. several years ago. Yukari gave me a sage piece of advice as she left me in downtown Tokyo after our all too brief lunch together: “If you get lost, look lost and someone will come to your aid.” I decided to test that. Even though I explored the city without taking a wrong turn or getting disoriented, I feigned confusion and I looked lost. I was not disappointed. Even in the midst of a torrential downpour, not one but three concerned locals stopped to try to help me out.
This is the Japan I remembered from my first visit and this is the Japan I happily rediscovered on my return: a place that is most certainly enigmatic, though one that is endlessly enchanting.
My first exposure to Japan was to the urban, corporate metropolis of Tokyo; the vital commercial hub of Osaka; and the traditional, cultural center of Kyoto. My January journey took me to the Hakuba Valley, located deep within the Japanese Alps in the northwestern part of Nagano Prefecture. Hakuba revealed yet another aspect of Japan’s engaging persona. To borrow from a Japanese Haiku, “All Heaven and Earth, Flowered white obliterate, Snow…unceasing snow.”
Hakuba: Skiing and Snowboarding “Shibumi” Style
When something has been designed really well, it has an understated, effortless beauty and it really works. The Japanese call this principle “shibumi.” And while this characteristic is typically a part of Japanese interior design, it is no less apparent in the country’s approach to the creation of its ski resorts. The multiple resorts of the magnificent Hakuba Valley are a fine and inviting illustration of shibumi.
The valley incorporates 11 ski resorts, over 200 runs, 115 lifts, huge towering peaks, a local village, ski and snowboard shops, a combination of traditional or western dining, and Après entertainment. During the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Hakuba hosted many events including downhill, ski jumping, and super G. This is the heart and soul of snow sports in Japan.
True to the the tenets of Japanese efficiency and Zen design, the Hakuba Valley All Mountain Lift Pass includes 11 ski resorts, all accessible in a single day: Jiigatake, Kashimayari , Happo One (home to the downhill race courses for the Nagano Games), Hakuba 47, Goryu, Iwatake, Tsugaike, Sanosaka, Minekata, Norikura, and Cortina.
Here’s what to Know and Tell:
- Average Snow Fall: 11 metres
- Ski Resorts: 11
- Vertical Drop: 1070 metres
- Gondolas: 5
- Lifts: 115
- Trails: 138
- Terrain Parks: 9
- Ski Hours: 0800 – 1700
- Ski Season: Early December to Early May
- Longest Run: 8 kilometres
- Beginner Terrain: 30% – There are 47 excellent green runs across Hakuba’s resorts
- Intermediate Terrain: 40% – Vast green and red terrain for improving and progressing
- Advanced Terrain: 30% – Challenging steep pistes and mogul runs
- Backcountry Terrain: Extensive terrain options and English-speaking guides
- Tree Skiing: Yes
- Half Pipe: Yes
- Night Skiing: Yes
The Valley – After the Powder
Even the most dedicated of skiers and boarders welcome a respite from the mountain now and then. On those days, the soaring jagged alpine peaks are an impressive backdrop to less strenuous experiences.
After a day of skiing, relieve those aching muscles by soaking in a natural thermal hot-springs or “onsen.” What the sauna is to the Scandinavians the onsen is to the Japanese: a physical and mental cleanse that is an integral part of daily life.
Matsumoto Castle is the oldest castle in Japan, dating back to the 16th century. Inside this designated national treasure are historical displays and artifacts including samurai armour. Perhaps most captivating about this place is the still lingering feeling of the Warring States Period.
Snow Monkeys of Jigokudani
These 200 Japanese macaques spend their days bathing in the onsen hot-springs, happily posing as visitors snap photos of them. This area was named “Jigokudani,” meaning “Hell’s Valley,” because it was believed that the steep cliffs and hot water bursting from the earth’s surface resembled hell. From Hakuba the snow monkey sanctuary is a two hour drive followed by a 30-minute stroll into the snowy foothills.
Zenkoji Buddhist Temple
Zenkoji Temple in Nagano city was built in the 7th century and houses the oldest existing Buddha statue in Japan. It is said that if you have an illness in a particular area of your body, you should touch the same area of the Buddha’s body to relieve your pain and be cured.
Kimono and Tea Ceremony
Experience the intricacies of kimono dressing and the protocol of Japanese tea ceremony with a professional teacher.
Taiko Drum Tour
Play the Taiko drum with a local professional drum team and learn about its mythological origin in Japanese folklore.
Become a Sushi Chef
Learn how to make traditional hand-rolled sushi from a pro! Pay attention because you are making your own lunch!
Canada > Tokyo Narita International Airport
When flying to an international destination, I invariably prefer to travel via that country’s official flag-carrying airline. For me, the experiential journey begins when I board the aircraft. Aboard Japan Airlines, you are more than a passenger. You are most definitely a guest, to be honoured in the spirit of “omotenashi,” the unique brand of Japanese hospitality which embodies attentive care with unobtrusiveness and respect with relaxation. Omotenashi is palpable at JAL – in both speech and gesture, on the ground and in the air.
From Western Canada
JAL operates daily non-stop service from Vancouver to Narita International Airport. The duration of the flight varies from 9 to 10 hours.
From Central and Eastern Canada
From the central and eastern cities of Canada, JAL, with its Oneworld Alliance partners, provides connecting service to Narita via its U.S. gateways of New York-JFK, Boston, and Chicago.
The tag-line of Japan Airlines is Fly into Tomorrow. And it is utterly appropriate. JAL flies the “tomorrow” generation of aircraft today.
I flew out of Vancouver on the 787 Dreamliner, which offers Business Class and Economy. JAL’s Business Class Shell Flat Neo seat / bed lives up to its promotion: “arguably defined as perfection.” However, what is most impressive about the 787 crosses both classes and speaks to the innovation of this aircraft:
One of the main benefits for passengers of the 787’s 50-percent-composite-material construction is that the cabin can be pressurized to allow higher humidity. In the moister air, nasal passages do not get that burning, dried-out feeling and eyes feel less irritated. Higher humidity may also lessen chances of getting sick because germs “stick” more in dry nasal areas.
The 787’s overhead bins sport a groundbreaking design. These bins are exceptionally roomy, easily able to accommodate standard rollaboards. Even better is the fact that their deep curve and the way they fold into the ceiling create unusually spacious headroom in the aisle seat and create an overall sense of roominess throughout the cabin.
The Dreamliner is substantially quieter than other aircraft and it is a noticeable difference. Reduction in noise, besides all the environmental benefits, is a stress-reducer for passengers.
What a view! The windows on the 787 are the largest in civil aviation, bringing in more natural light and providing an unparalleled look at the heavens. During the flight, the colour and tint of the windows changes, creating a soothing visual effect. Also unusual, Boeing has eschewed the window shade. Instead, a large button controls the light.
Operating from several of its U.S. gateways is JAL’s sleek Boeing 777, featuring four class options: First Class JAL Suite, Business Class Sky Suite, Sky Premium Economy, and Economy. Worth noting is that JAL’s First and Business cabins offer the extreme comfort of memory foam mattresses and Premium Economy includes lounge access!
JAL Café Lines The coffee on board JAL caught my attention, particularly since traditionally it is quality tea that I equate with Japan. In collaboration with renowned “coffee hunter” Yoshiaki José Kawashima, JAL has painstakingly selected great coffees from around the world and delivers them to your seat. This was a delightful surprise and one which continued throughout my visit to Japan, a country which has clearly embraced the burgeoning global coffee culture.
B E D D Sky Auberge by JAL
“Auberge” is a French word for “inn” and is also sometimes used to refer to a restaurant. JAL christened the airline’s Sky Auberge “BEDD” – for bed, dining, delicious, and dream – to subtly remind passengers in First Class and Business Class that they can transform their seats into snug beds after a satisfying repast.
Wu-essence + Wa-harmony
They are simple and monosyllabic Japanese words which impeccably describe the consummate JAL in-flight experience. “Wu” for “essence,” the elements of comfortable flying. “Wa” for “harmony,” the concord between guest and host.
Tokyo Narita International Airport – Hakuba
There are several ways to travel from Narita International to Hakuba. Whichever choice you make, you can be certain that in typical Japanese fashion your transfer will depart on time!
- 5 days advance booking required
- Taxi will be waiting for you at airport and take you directly to your hotel in Hakuba
- Prices are per person
Nagano Snow Shuttle
- Direct bus service operated by JHN Travel to Hakuba hotels
- Departs Narita at 20:00 (21:00 on Tuesday + Wednesday)
- Transfer time is approximately 5 hours
Bullet Train Tokyo to Nagano + Bus Nagano to Hakuba –
- Relax on the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) and watch the landscape fly by
- Note that the last bus from Nagano Station to Hakuba departs at 21:45
Hakuba “Hoteru” (“Hotels”)
Hakuba offers a variety of comfortable accommodations suitable for individuals, families, and groups. The Happo-Wadano area, in particular, has an excellent range of hotel facilities, from budget lodges to 5-star properties, all very close to the Happo-One ski area.
These three hotels are standouts in their respective categories:
Hakuba Tokyu Hotel
- 5-star hotel
- Japanese + French restaurants
- Onsen natural hot springs + saunas
La Neige Higashikan
- 5-star European style boutique hotel
- Superb à la carte restaurant
- Lounge with open fireplace
Shirouma-so Hakuba Onsen Ryokan
- Traditional Japanese inn
- Onsen hot springs
- Second floor south facing rooms offer views of the Northern Alps
Japan Eats: Izakaya + Okonomiyaki
The location of Hakuba in the Nagano Prefecture means that chefs have some of the freshest, tastiest meat and vegetable ingredients at their fingertips. The area is not without international cuisine, including pizza, pasta, and steak houses; Chinese food and Korean barbecue. But not to be missed is a meal – or meals! – at a Japanese pub or “izakaya” and a grill-it-yourself “okonomiyaki” restaurant. Okonomiyaki is sometimes referred to as Japanese pizza, savoury pancake, or omelette. Its ingredients can include green onion, meat, shrimp, squid, vegetables, and cheese. Not all okonomiyaki restaurants are grill-it-yourself, but these interactive eating establishments are certainly the most fun!
Now, to a memory from this writer’s 1983 visit to Japan: the cost of eating out. It was high. It is high no longer. The weaker Japanese yen has translated into a much more economical travel destination! So, Bon Appétit! or, in the language of the land, “Itadakimasu!” And don’t forget to follow another Japanese tradition: Begin your occasion with a glass of sake and a hearty toast –”Kanpai!”– which literally means “dry (your) cup.”
Don’t Lug the Luggage!
In keeping with Japan’s world famous efficiency, it is possible here to send your luggage directly to the place you will be: your hotel, a private residence, or to the airport. Luggage delivery services TA-Q-BIN / Yamato Transport and JAL ABC both have counters at Narita International (and at other airports in Japan, as well), allowing passengers to collect their luggage and proceed directly to their airline check-in. This service is especially valuable to those with late departure times from Narita. It allows passengers to liberate themselves of heavy luggage and leisurely spend the day exploring Tokyo. It can transform a day of potential exasperation, following the often mandatory 12:00 noon hotel check-out time, into the perfect vacation ending.
TA-Q-BIN / Yamato Transport
For transportation to Narita International Airport from Tokyo Central Station
Narita City: Essential, Quintessential Japan
An often overlooked pleasure that is just minutes away from the airport is Narita City, a microcosm of traditional Japan. The attraction of Narita lies not in a plethora of tourist sights and activities, but in a chance to catch a glimpse of everyday life largely unchanged from generations ago.
Omotesando Street is the main drag which runs through the town to the famed 1,000-year-old Naritasan Buddhist Temple. All along this charming “sando” are reassuring snapshots of the Japan of yesteryear, of storybooks, of our preconceptions. The shops are quintessentially Japanese, offering cast-iron teapots, samurai swords, sake, and senbei or rice crackers both savoury and sweet. Regional food items are a proud staple of the town’s restaurants and food stalls. A stroll on Omotesando is not complete without a stop to taste sweet azuki bean jelly (yokan), Japanese pickles (tsukemono), and the main attraction, broiled eel (unagi). Also a must is a stop outside Kawatoyo Restaurant to view the activity at the low wooden table. Here, the eel master reaches into a bucket to retrieve his unlucky catch which is quickly skinned and sliced and tossed on the grill.
A visit to Narita City is the perfect conclusion to a journey to Japan. After the pulsating pace of Tokyo and the pristine powder of Hakuba, Narita ensures that no visitor leaves this Land of the Rising Sun without at least a peek into its beginning, its source, its soul.
Fly into Tomorrow to Endless Discovery
Juxtapose the respective global taglines of Japan Airlines and the Japan National Tourism Organization and you have a standing invitation to this nation of rich history, of cultural paradoxes, of contrasting geographies, of delicate balance between progress and preservation. Japan is intoxicating. And it’s not just the sake.
Fly into Tomorrow to Endless Discovery.
JAPAN AIRLINES – Fly into Tomorrow.
JAPAN NATIONAL TOURISM ORGANIZATION – Japan. Endless Discovery.