Japan Post-New Years 2024
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Japan Post-New Years 2024

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After the whirlwind that was Taiwan, we had one day to rest before heading out to Japan. We landed at Narita, commuted in to Tokyo station on the Skyliner.

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I recommend purchasing Skyliner tickets ahead of time online. You need a regular ticket AND a Skyliner ticket to board.

Skiing in Hakuba

We chose to ski and snowboard in Hakuba near Nagano because Epic pass holders can get 5 consecutive days for free. Otherwise, IKON pass holders get to go to Niseko for free. If you don’t have one of these season passes, day passes were affordable (compared to Lake Tahoe) at <$50USD/day for the Hakuba All-Mountain pass which gives access to all resorts. To get to Hakuba from Tokyo, we took the Hokuriku shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Nagano Station. From Nagano you can hop on a shuttle bus (we used Nagano Snow Shuttle) to be taken to Hakuba Bus Station, the main bus hub in Hakuba. From there most hotels offer a free shuttle service to pick you up and take you to your accommodations, and both ski gear rental shops also offered a free pickup service as well. We got our gear from Central Snowsport and Rhythm. It’s worth mentioning that 100% of all the snowboard gear my friends rented broke (loose stripped screws or broken bindings), while the people who rented from Rhythm got to try step-ons at no additional cost and nothing broke.

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It’s worth mentioning that things are very on-time in Japan, so make sure to look up exactly when your trip departs, get to the station(s) early, and build in buffer time between each in case there are delays. For example, our train was delayed 45 minutes due to the earthquake a few days prior, our 60 minute buffer became 15, and it’s a 10 minute walk out from the platform to the bus!

In Hakuba, I skiied 3 out of the 5 days we were there. We went to Happo One, Hakuba47/Goryu, and then Tsugaike. The snow conditions weren’t great when we went (upper mountain snow: 85cm at Happo One, ~140cm at Hakuba47/Goryu, ~130cm at Tsugaike) but the resorts were still fun. As a beginner/intermediate, there were plenty of runs that I could do and repeat to get better while my friends could split off and do the more advanced runs. This was the most consecutive skiing I’ve ever done with 3 weekdays out of the four we were there. People keep telling me that getting more days in is key in both improving and falling in love with the sport. I’m still getting there in both, and will probably spend some time in Tahoe this season; otherwise I’d barely see Michelle in the Winter, lol. I’m also slightly traumatized by the fact that we went down what was supposed to be an intermediate run, but due to the lack of snow there were a lot of moguls revealed; I slid my ass down at least half that hill. It was only at the bottom of the mountain we found a tiny sign that said that run was actually Advanced (black diamond) that day..but at least I made it to the bottom!

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We thought the notes from https://www.skihakuba.com/hakuba-ski-resorts.htm were really good!
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In Hakuba, there are plenty of restaurants that you can go to in the main Happo One resort area or near Echoland. With all the tourism, I recommend making reservations if you can, and it’s easiest with a japanese speaker (perhaps asking your hotel reception to help you). We were in a slightly remote part of Hakuba and we ran into multiple problems getting to and from our cabin. I’d recommend learning how to reference your pickup location in Japanese if you plan on calling any taxi companies. If you are able, accessing the Hakuba Night Taxi mobile application can also help if you are near one of its shuttle stops. We were only able to do this with a friend’s japanese phone number because we needed to receive SMS, but it’s worth trying.

Tokyo

Back in Tokyo, the theme is eating good food and shopping every day. Some highlights from my memorable list are:

Food

  1. Standing sushi at Uogashi Nihon-Ichi - while not the most premium sushi, I thought the a la carte ordering was great. For $20-$40, you can get 12-24 pieces of really yummy sushi, and the value stuck in my head the whole trip.
  2. Numbing spicy ramen at Kikanbo - one of our last few meals. If you like tender pork, flavorful spicy broth, or cilantro, this is the place to come. We only got Medium (2 out of 4 on their spicy scale) and it wasn’t spicy at all.
  3. Gyukatsu Motomura - a cook-it-yourself experience on a stone plate, this beef katsu was juicy and a fun time. They even gave us a private room for our reservation of 6 along with souvenir chopsticks and a paper crane.
  4. Udon Shin - the last highlight of many great foods, we waited about 45 minutes for this bowl of butter udon and it was so worth it.
  5. Elsewhere on the list.. Savoy pizza, Tori tsuta yakitori, Unitora Nakadori uni tasting, Nanbantei okonomiyaki, Family Mart ‘fami-chiki’ chicken sandwich, and more. Everything was spectacular.
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I highly recommend using Tabelog, the Japanese Yelp, to look for restaurants near you to go to. Anything >3.5 is highlighted and considered good, and you can filter for specific dishes e.g. sushi if you’re craving something specific. The website worked better for me as I couldn’t sign up for the mobile application.

Besides food places, I took random notes on some things I had multiples of like the different coffees I had and the uni tasting I did. Not ‘expert’ notes by any means, just small personal thoughts. Here they are below:

Uni tasting at Tsukiji Unitora Nakadori:

  • Hokkaido Nemuro: Classic uni flavor, about as expected for a normal uni 7/10
  • Hokkaido Ochii Shi: A little more plain tasting, less flavorful 5/10
  • Hokkaido Hamanaka: Same classic flavor and slightly less creamy 7/10
  • Hokkaido Akkeshi: Super good. Perfect balance of flavors, not super creamy. 9/10
  • Hokkaido Kushiro: A little bland even with salt. Pretty creamy. 6/10
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Coffee: It was interesting to hop into various cafes in Japan as I just got an espresso machine and grinder, so I’m looking to learn more about my own tastes in coffee. I noticed a lot of blends were popular while “single-origin” is touted just about everywhere in America. We also went to Glitch Coffee Roasters which as my friend put it is “the #1 hype place on /r/espresso” which I had no clue about before we went. I’m starting to build the opinion that I like darker roasts, fuller-body and on the bitter side, rather than lighter roasts or acidic tasting pulls. For example at Glitch, the coffee had a really strong fruit or tea flavor of the ones we tried. I kind of want my coffee to just taste like classic coffee, rather than something else. Still, it was impressive they could get the beans to taste that way. My favorite coffee of the trip was from Ogawa Coffee Laboratory. They had a great chart explaining the flavor profiles of their coffees, and I ended up buying two 200g bags of their beans. They’ve been great to make at home!

  • [Glitch] Colombia Huila Monteblanco, extremely fruity. Notes of mango, orange, passionfruit come through. Do not prefer to traditional coffee taste
  • [Glitch] Colombia risaralda, vanilla and bergamot notes come through in pourover, not a fan of the watery pourover.
  • [Glitch] Bolivia Santa Cruz Floripondio, very light coffee, strong tea flavor
  • All Seasons Coffee: liked the Brazil + Guatemala blended dark roast espresso
  • Moo (Vybes) cafe: Brazil roast, pretty decent flavor, not that acidic, on the watery mouthfeel side
  • Ogawa Coffee Laboratory Organic House blend and Mild Blend: very balanced, not too acidic or bitter, a bit watery the mouthfeel
  • Sensing Touch of Earth espresso: Brazil (dark roast) and Papua New Guinea (Medium Roast) little sour/acidic, medium body

Shopping

Before the trip, I compiled a list of things that might be interesting and I think I did pretty much everything I really wanted to do.

General shopping: In Ginza we visited Itoya for its seemingly unlimited supply of stationary. I didn’t realize there could be so many different types of pens (at least two full floors full). I bought a leather-bound journal to log all my future espresso bean explorations. Elsewhere, we went thrifting in Shimokitazawa and Harajuku. Its pretty easy to just hop from store to store in these two districts. The streets are lined with everything from hype streetwear to unknown little shops selling vintage wares. I will say I noticed a lot of america-core clothing. Carhartt, Levi’s, and other American brands were front and center at a lot of stores we went to. My two highlights were the excellent selection at Desert Snow in Shimokitazawa (I bought two sweaters!) and the Chrome Hearts store in Harajuku (I bought this as a pinky ring). For all your gift and souvenir needs, I recommend going to Don Quijote (’donki’) since they have multiple floors of snacks and various japanese goods (e.g. skincard, electronics, clothes, etc.)

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Kitchenware on Kappabashi Street: A personal favorite of mine, I came back to Kappabashi street twice. Most stores close between 5pm and 6pm so I ran out of time the first visit. Looking for a kitchen knife, I went to Tsubaya Cutlery, Kama-Asa, Kamata, and Takanojin. I would personally recommend going to Kamata (great selection, free engraving, busy so hard to get service) and Takanojin (great selection, $5 engraving, most speak english). Takanojin was a nice surprise because it didn’t come up in any of my research but we stumbled upon it. They had a chart explaining steel quality, great service, and they even had radishes for us to use to try out any knife we were interested in. They can also do the tax-free purchase in-store (vs. others you have to make a second stop at a tax-return counter). I was so excited I ended up buying 4 knives between Kamata and Takanojin (chefs knife, utility knife, a yanagi for sushi, and a nakiri for vegetables). Other than knives, I bought ceramic plates, an all-steel mesh strainer, a sake pouring cup which I’ll double as an espresso dosing cup, and binchotan charcoal. All of these were mostly from Iida, Kama-asa, or random shops lining the street.

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Watch Shopping for a Grand Seiko at Isetan: The big highlight of the trip for me was buying a Grand Seiko. It’s my first luxury watch - if not first luxury at all - purchase. I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetic of watches, and there are a lot of reasons I was thinking about my first foray into luxury watches. One is, my grandpa (who passed away in June 2023) always wore a white-dial quartz watch, previously a Seiko. One time, he needed to have it repaired or replaced and I bought him a Seiko 5, but he didn’t like it because the watch needed motion to power instead of a quartz battery. I’ve been wearing that Seiko 5 since he said he didn’t want it. Next, I realized that I don’t really celebrate big milestones in my life. Ever since I graduated from UW, I haven’t celebrated moving to Sunnyvale to work at LinkedIn, getting promoted twice on the Finance team there, making the move to product management, getting raises and a promotion in the 3 years since. I don’t really commemorate occasions in my life with things very much, and I thought this year might be a good year to do it. Plus, the Grand Seiko I ended up buying was about 20% less expensive in Japan than it would’ve been in the USA. So, now I own a Grand Seiko.

Activities

In our free night times, we went to a few bars in the Shinjuku area, a few arcades, and 1Oak (twice..lol). A quick review:

  • Omoide Yokocho: It wasn’t super busy when we visited in the second week of January, and we had a large group of ~8, so we only went to two bars. But they had surprisingly spacious upstairs areas where we could all sit, and they were open until 1 or 2am. This was fun and I’d do it again.
  • Kabukicho tower: We came here for the first floor bar/restaurant combo with the second floor arcade, but the arcade left a lot to be desired as it was mostly gashapon and the taito drum game. The bar/restaurant also closed around 11pm, service was a bit slow, and there were random stipulations about getting fined if we didn’t pay in cash by a certain time, which was kind of annoying. It’s fine to come once to experience the Shinjuku area (and red light district) in the surrounding streets, but I wouldn’t really want to come again.
  • Taito Station: We kept coming back to this specific arcade in Shinjuku (some Taito stations don’t have DDR, so this one specifically). Each floor is a bit different from claw games to music games to casino-like games (which do not pay out real money). Our favorites were the claw games and the rhythm games like DDR or an Osu-like game using your hands on the screen.
  • 1Oak: We came here twice on a Thursday to see Bruno Mars after his concert at the TokyoDome, and then again for a table on Friday for our last night in Tokyo. Both nights, the cigarette smoke laced the air and the noise was unbearably loud. Michelle actually left the club to go buy earplugs from a nearby convenience store and that made it tolerable. My clothes reeked of smoke afterward. Bruno also only came on for like, 6 total minutes at 2am on Thursday. After 1Oak on our last night at 4am we went to an All You Can Eat and All You Can Drink karaoke place until 7am, and I’m pretty sure that’s how I ended up getting a cold which started on the flight. Its taken me a week to recover from these nights lol.

On my “didn’t dos” were just a few viewpoints or picturesque places. I wanted to go to the >300 floor Tokyo Skytree to have champagne at the tallest point in Tokyo - their lunch reservation is about $100 USD - but they didn’t have any reservations available. Elsewhere, we could’ve gone to a ~50th floor rooftop bar Andaz Tokyo or Hyatt (this was closed for renovations) but I’ve been before so didn’t need to chase it again this time. We didn’t end up going to an All You Can Eat Wagyu restaurant but that wasn’t very high on my priority list either. Overall I loved my time in Tokyo and I’m glad I got to do all the highlights on my list!