2018 Road Trip in Central Japan

Duration:
12/29/2017 - 1/13/2018

Destinations:
Tokyo - Karuizawa - Kusatsu - Kanazawa - Shirakawa - Kyoto - Osaka


I won’t pretend that this was a just a casual trip. In fact, I never thought I would have a chance to go on a road trip in Japan before 30. I didn’t know Japanese. I barely do now. It’s really a dream come true.

waterfront

I was excited after arriving from a 12-hour long flight, Japan Airlines’ JL7 (BOS - NRT) on Dec 29, two days before the New Year’s Eve. It’s not my first visit to Japan, it certainly won’t be the last one (who knows), but it would be my first road trip. I knew it would be fun driving in Japan.

But driving in Tokyo? Not so much. Expensive toll fees and parking problems could be painful, not to mention the heavy daily traffic. Plus, Tokyo already has probably the most convenient (and sophisticated) metro system in the world.

Tokyo

I had a wild plan of staying for more than 6 days in Tokyo - it’s great knowing what to expect. But it turned out that even a week was not enough. Tokyo is more than just a metropolitan city - it’s a little universe. Food, people, nature and tradition harmoniously co-exist here. No, they are more than just existing - they’re delicately functioning.

Tokyo Dori
Zizo-Ji
Zizo-Ji
Zizo-Ji
Tokyo
Tokyo
Tokyo Tower
Tokyo Tower
Tokyo

For Westerners, Michael Pronko’s Motions and Moments offers a great POV into the daily urban life of Tokyo. As a Chinese, I enjoyed trying to immerse myself into the city, and imagine that I actually live here. I tried so much that I got tired of taking photos like a tourist, which I am. Now I am regretting.


Kamakura

It’s places like Kamakura that make Tokyo even more diverse. I know Kamakura technically belongs to the Kanagawa Prefecture, but many tourists in Tokyo would do a one-day trip here to visit the historic temples and gardens. Plus, it’s adjacent to the Shonan beach, which compensates the lacking of similar ocean views in Tokyo.

Buddhism

Kamakura is famous for its five great Zen temples, of which I picked the top 2, Kenchō-ji (建長寺) and Engaku-ji (円覚寺). In these temples you can really feel the successful localization of Buddhism in Japan. You can even hike a bit here, which let me grab a beautiful shot of Mt. Fuji in the sunset.

Walking
Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji in the sunset

I didn’t bother driving here from Tokyo because of the rush hour traffic. Taking a JR train was extremely convenient (and cheap). Kamakura really is a perfect day-trip destination.


Karuizawa

Driving in Karuizawa

The drive from Tokyo to Karuizawa took us about two hours, mostly via Kan-etsu Expressway (関越自動車道) and Jōshin-etsu Expressway (上信越自動車道 ). The Japanese Kanji of Karuizawa is “軽井沢”. I really like its name for the casualness it conveys. “軽” means light, which is exactly what Karuizawa is - small, quiet and relaxing. It is also expensive, which is rare for rural Japanese areas. Maybe it’s because Karuizawa is supposed to be a place where the rich / privileged own luxurious houses and villas for summer vacations.

Airbnb
An ideal vacation house I found on Airbnb

I grew interest in Karuizawa from the Japanese TV series Quartet, later the new season of a Netflix show Terrace House: Opening New Doors. Both are based in Karuizawa, and fun to watch.

Quartet
Characters in Quartet were here
Park in Karuizawa
Snowman in Karuizawa

I heard it was best to take a bicycle tour to visit the place, and this was confirmed as we drove through the beautiful town. The sad thing was, we arrived at Karuizawa on a cold January day, so there wasn’t really much we could do. Museums and hiking trails were also closed during the winter season.

Church
Church made of stone
Misc

We would love to try the Hoshino hot spring, but we already got one in our hotel room at Marriott, and we were heading to Kusatsu - the famous onsen town - the next day.


Kusatsu

Arriving in Kusatsu

It was a fun drive to Kusatsu - we drove on Japan’s national highways(国道292草津) in Gunma Prefecture, where I saw the snow chain road sign for the first time. This highway has a famous section across the Shiga Highlands(国道292志賀高原段), known as the highest national highway in Japan, and it’s supposed to have incredible views. The sad thing is, again, that this part of roads were closed from November to April due to the heavy snow. Maybe next time!

Kusatsu
Yubatake at night
Kusatsu
Kusatsu
Kusatsu
Kusatsu

We stayed at one of the most expensive onsen hotels in Kusatsu, named Onsen Boun. The interior wasn’t as good as in the pictures but the onsen was the real deal, and it was absolutely beyond expectations. (Sorry no photos…)


Kanazawa

Thanks to the closed roads (mentioned above) on the north, we had to take 国道144 - 国道406 - 国道58 to get on the Joshin-etsu Expressway(上信越自動車道). We unintentionally passed by Tsumagoi (嬬恋村), a highland village with stunning views, and came across some really twisted roads covered by ice and snow.⬇️⬇️

Google Maps
国道406
国道406

Even the Expressway was not easy to drive, as the visibility may be quite low during snow. I was really amazed at how fast the snow removal was done on Japanese highways, otherwise the situation could be a lot worse.

Yukitsuri
Kanazawa

Kanazawa is the first city I’ve visited in the Sea of Japan side. Many features of Kanazawa’s cityscape have developed in response to the winter climate. But unlike cities in Hokkaido, it has a much deeper cultural atmosphere.

In the centre of Kanazawa, where the land suddenly rises into the slopes of a plateau, the ancient stone walls of Kanazawa Castle and the trees overhanging them seem traced in the monochromatic tones of ink paintings. On the adjacent hill, some eight thousand trees are hibernating under the heavy snow in Kenrokuen, the castle’s outer garden. Their branches bend with the weight of the snow over the landscaped pathways and ponds.

yukitsuri
Yukitsuri
yukitsuri
Yukitsuri

Each year before the onset of winter, poles are erected among the branches of the trees in Kenrokuen and rice-straw ropes suspended from their tops are attached to the branches to provide support against the snows of the Sea of Japan coast. These canopies of ropes, known as yukitsuri, shroud not only the vast aged trees, but also fragile younger trees and bushes.

I am not familiar with the interesting history behind Kanazawa, but I really enjoyed walking in this city. It’s like walking in Kyoto, though you would feel more isolated here. A few steps away and you could be completely alone.

kanazawa
ひがし茶屋街

We were also lucky enough to witness the acrobatic performance from the firemen of Kanazawa’s fire station(消防出初式). Totally unexpected!

kanazawa
梯子登り
kanazawa
梯子登り
kanazawa
梯子登り

The Umeno Bridge(梅ノ橋) across the Asano river offers a nostalgistic feel as well as a great spot for portraiture photography.

Leaving Kanazawa by Asano river


Shirakawa

Shirakawa was a famous traditional village in Gifu Prefecture, which is on our way from Kanazawa to Kyoto. A pretty nice little town - also very touristy. We paid Shirakawa a short visit, so that we could check in our hotel in Hida before late night.

kanazawa
gassho-style house

What I liked most about our hotel Hotel Kikori that day, was that we could taste the lesser-known Hida beef without staying at the Hida city! Which turned out a huuuuge mistake - because the hida beef was soooo good!

kanazawa
Our breakfirst at Hotel Kikori
Our breakfirst at Hotel Kikori

The delicious breakfast really gave us a wonderful mood for our drive down to Kyoto. The first half of this drive was also quite exciting, as we were in a snow world. See below:



Our Vermont trip in 2017 Fall

Be it Airbnb or a vacation house where we would stay, we had high expectations for Vermont in early October. It didn’t disappoint us.

But before all that dreamy foliage thing…We visited the Teddy Bear factory in Burlington VT to put ourselves in retrospect for a little while.

bear
trumpbear
dol
dol

After the Teddy tour, we enjoyed the sunset at Waterfront in Burlington downtown. A very peaceful and relaxing place.

waterfront
A group of 11 this time
waterfront
waterfront
waterfront
sunset at Waterfront

Our vacation house was in Waterbury, not far from Stowe which is a famous town for skiing and sightseeing. It’s very convenient to buy things from local markets so we didn’t bring too many food materials this time. When we woke up the next morning, the view was astonishing even just from the inside.

house1
view from the dinning table
balcony
attic bedroom
balcony
the balcony
balcony
view from the balcony
balcony
view from the balcony
balcony
group photo at the balcony
balcony
group photo at the balcony
cable
group photo at Stowe cable tour
cable
group photo at Stowe cable tour

Envy us :).

My Airbnb Experience In A Maine Forest

I tend to avoid Airbnb when I go on a vacation since its risk is always higher than chain hotels, but after my recent airbnb trip I just realized how much fun I had missed because of this.

Two weeks ago we (me and my friends) spent a fantastic weekend in Newry, Maine where we rented an Airbnb house and drove all the way from Boston for 3 hours - just to taste a bit of nature.

This place, although in Maine, was actually quite close to the White Mountains area in New Hampshire. Acadia was naturally our initial plan, as most of us had never visited this famous national park, but it was too touristy (and far and expensive) for a group of 10 who spend most of the time together playing board games. Yes, we drive more than 200 miles to find a place for playing board games!

arrival

The house was recently renovated so it looked incredibly new. Unfortunately, it had irritating chemical smell upon our arrival. We opened all windows and doors for a while, then the odor was gone and we did find this place quite cozy and interesting.

house1
outside our house

After our house tour, the living room immediately became our favourite spot. Great view and light, large space and fireplace, lovely furniture, we could really see ourselves sitting here playing all day - and we did!

house1
the living room
house1
dining and kitchen
house1
storage and decoration
house1
balcony

We played Splendor, Risk, and Mahjong (麻将) and it was all fun and games until someone finally got hungry. In fact, cooking could be the biggest problem here - you had to drive a dozen miles to buy materials. Luckily we brought whatever we need for a two-day trip - all we ever needed was just drinks and noodles!

house1
cooking soybean sauce
house1
noodles with soybean sauce

We cooked the delicious 炸酱面 (noodles with soybean sauce) and it was a treasure.

We did go hiking around in the day and it was also much fun. Overall this airbnb experience was extremely wonderful and we unanimously agree that we would do a similar trip to Vermont in the foliage season this year.