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One day in Otaru, Hokkaido: What to see and do while in Otaru (Loads of pics!)

One day in Otaru, Hokkaido: What to see and do while in Otaru (Loads of pics!)

An itinerary for Hokkaido (and specifically Sapporo) cannot be complete without a stop at Otaru. Otaru is a small port North East from Sapporo and makes a perfect day trip outside of the city. This is my one day itinerary for Otaru and covers all the must sees and must dos while in Otaru.

Getting to Otaru from Sapporo

Otaru can be reached by train from Sapporo. There are two stations you can alight at depending on your itinerary: Otaru Station and Minami-Otaru Station.

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As to which is better, I would personally pick Minami-Otaru Station over Otaru Station as the former allows for a better/smoother itinerary. Otaru has two main attractions. There is a shopping street and also its canals. Coming in from Minami-Otaru Station places you close to the edge of the shopping street and from there you can visit the canals before ending at Otaru Station for your train back.

Otaru Shopping Street (Sakaimachi Shopping Street)

Once you exit from Minami-Otaru Station, grab yourself a map of the local area and walk towards the Sakaimachi Shopping Street. The walk is largely downhill with the occasional gem along the way:

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Coming from this end also gives a good start to your visit as you will first encounter the Otaru Music Box Museum with an odd pendulum clock by its entrance. Head on in to be amazed by the variety of music boxes available for sale. You can find the plain simple hand wound device and also delicate (and extremely expensive) music boxes on offer. Somehow, in our modern day and age, such a simple device still amazes. Be sure to look out for the historical music carts that are essentially self contained entertainment machines belting out popular jingles. There is also a short display showcasing the development of music boxes together with other major technological developments in the world:

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Across the road is the Sakaimachi Shopping Street. While I was there, there were free brochures left along the footpath advertising the different shops available and where they are located. Otaru, I think, can be considered as a mini Venice. Like Venice, Otaru appears to be a glassware city. There are countless number of shops selling delicate and beautiful glassware and also a number of wine shops selling both red and white wines as well as local sake.

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Make sure to grab a Hokkaido Cream Puff while there. There is a shop selling pretty decent puffs for a mere 90 yen that comes with a free cup of coffee. Definitely value for money! On a side note, the cheese based dessert was average. So stick with the puffs!

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Otaru is also famous for its seafood/sushi shops. Do shop around to see if you can get a better deal.

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If you are like us, you can consider venturing away from the shopping belt to get the real deal. Not far from the other end of Sakaimachi Shopping Street is Otarusankaku Market (just beside Otaru Station).

Otarusankaku Market is a small seafood market where you can dine in. We decided to splurge this time round and got ourselves a hairy crab for 6,500 yen on top of our kaisendons. Having done some research both pre and post Otaru trip, 6,500 yen is a reasonable price to pay for a hair crab. Snow crabs are generally cheaper. King crabs are generally way more expensive. Why not also grab a 400 yen oyster and down it with some local Otaru beer? 

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Otaru Canals

Once lunch is out of the way (definitely a late lunch by the time you are done with Sakaimachi Shopping Street and having walked over to the market area), you can stroll over to the canals. It is generally better to visit during winter as the views are better. The canals are just average without the snow. Consider having a Hokkaido Ice Cream while there. Perfect for a hot summer day and maybe a perfect supplement on a cold winter’s day!

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Do look out for the area just beside the canal where it used to be called Wall Street of the North. Despite its small town appearance, Otaru had for a brief moment the chance of being a financial centre in the North. What remains today are the streets lining the canals with their old stone warehouses (now converted into restaurants).

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Getting from Otaru to Sapporo

From the canals, you have two options. You can either head back via Otaru Station or Minami-Otaru Station.

If you are travelling during winter (night falls earlier as compared to summer), going back via Minami-Otaru Station offers a different night view and may be worth the walk.

If not, head back to Otaru Station.

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If you enjoyed reading this, remember to like and also follow.

Signing off, eTraveller.

 

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How to Take a Japanese Bath

How to Take a Japanese Bath

For many, a bath is nothing complex. You just fill a bathtub with warm water and dump essential salts or make it bubbly. And you are done. Yet, some cultures make bathing a communal activity where people gather to spend time with each other or just some quality personal time. Turks, Koreans, Taiwanese and Japanese all share some form of a culture involving public baths. One common denominator may be Japanese colonial rule (except, of course, the Turks). Unlike the bathtub at home, these public baths can be massive and may terrify a first timer. Well, it doesn’t have to be so.

This is my guide on how to take a Japanese bath as a first timer. I am sharing with you both the “traditional” / “correct” way and what I think is my own “simple” version.

Etiquette

It is crucial, I think, to get your etiquette right. Common sense prevails in most cases.

Mind your own business and keep your eyes and hands to yourself. Japanese baths are purely nude affairs so it would be terribly awkward if you were “caught” staring or evaluating the person next to you.

Since its a public bath and everybody sharing the baths, be considerate to your fellow brothers/sisters. Don’t spit/urinate into those pools. It’s really disgusting.

Don’t be a pest or be seen as a pest.

The “Correct” way to take a Japanese bath

There are 5 steps in all.

Step 1: Rinse yourself down well before going in for a soak as a common courtesy to your neighbours. Nobody wants a contaminated bath.

Step 2: Having rinsed yourself down, go for a soak. Depending on the bath house you are in, there may be different types of baths available. Salt baths, soda baths, iron baths, sulphur baths and a cold bath. Bath houses may place small signs beside each bath explaining the benefits of that bath. Take your pick and see if any of the available baths are beneficial to a pre-existing medical condition. This is just the first soak to help open your pores and also loosen/break up the layer of “persistent” dirt on your body.

Step 3: Once you are done with your first soak, you should go back to the washing area. Get yourself a stool. Give it a good rinse before plopping down on it. Soap yourself down well and give yourself a good scrub to remove all those dead skin cells and dirt on your body.

Step 4: Once you are done, you can go back in for your second soak. This is the time for you to really enjoy the bathing experience. You can either pick a particular bath for its medical benefits or rotate between the baths. Personally, I prefer the latter as you can have some rest time as you move from bath to bath. If you are really up for it, you can consider alternating between a hot bath and a cold bath. This supposedly helps with blood circulation. My suggestion is to do it slowly as it might be too sudden if you are not used to the temperature changes. For me, I actually felt dizzy after I went in too fast.

Step 5: Having soaked to your heart’s content, finish up the experience with another quick shower.

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My simpler version on how to take a Japanese Bath (Taiwanese Bath/Korean Bath)

The way I take a Japanese Bath (and likewise for Taiwanese and/or Korean) is somewhat different.

I find the steps to be repetitive and a waste of time to keep going back and forth between soaking and bathing. The entire process can be more efficient without compromising the actual experience. Also, it makes it simpler (yes, as simple as 1,2,3):

Step 1: Soap and wash yourself well.

Step 2: Enjoy the baths. Feel free to rotate between the baths. To avoid wrinkly fingers, I do something stupid but effective. I keep my fingers just above the waterline such that they remain mostly dry. Yes, it looks stupid but it works!

Step 3: Once you are done, get yourself a stool. Give it a good rinse before sitting down on it. Soap yourself down well again and give yourself a good scrub to remove all those dead skin cells and dirt on your body. I prefer to end off with a cold shower. I think a cold shower helps with the experience. I tend to sweat easily especially after a hot bath as my body will retain quite a bit of the heat. By finishing with a cold shower I avoid that sticky sweaty sensation at the end.

Optional: There are some who advocate going back and forth between soaking and showering if one finds it difficult to get “clean”. The idea here is each time you go for a soak, those dead skin cells get loosen and become easier to remove when you shower. I personally think it’s excessive as there is no true benchmark as to when you are actually “clean”. Just keep it simple!

Have you tried taking a Japanese Bath before? Let me know in the comments!

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Hotel Review: Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Hotel Review: Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Half board, Yukata, and Japanese baths at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel – Review

If you read my last post for my one day itinerary of Noboribetsu, you will remember that I mentioned staying at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel. This is my review of my stay and also my experience with the different facilities in the hotel. I hope you find this helpful in deciding where to stay while in Noboribetsu Onsen.

Booking Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

I did my reservation on Expedia. For those joining us for the first time, I have always been an advocate of Expedia more than that of Agoda. The reason here being that I tend to get the best rates from Expedia thanks to their highly generous price guarantee programme. Unlike Agoda, Expedia appears to normally not only match the lower price but refund you the difference. So for example you booked a room for USD125 on Expedia and discover a similar room going for USD100. Expedia will refund you USD50 (USD25 to match and another USD25). If you would like to know more, you can read about it here. That said, Agoda sometimes offer pretty good rates especially through their secret deal programme. I covered some Agoda travel hacks in my other post where I teach you how to “cheat” when using their secret deal feature.

Interestingly, the hotel offers something called “half board”. Noboribetsu Grand Hotel offers a dinner package on top of the usual morning breakfast. This I believe is for the benefit of the hotel’s guests as Noboribetsu Onsen is really out of the way and there are not many restaurants able to cater to the large number of tourists visiting the area. When I booked, I had no idea what this “half board” will be like. Fortunately for you, I documented by dinner (with loads of photos) and will be sharing them with you below.    

Good Location for Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

The hotel is ideally located being about 200m from the bus stop where you will be dropped off when coming in from Noboribetsu Station. The hotel is prominently located and is easy to spot once you get off the bus. There is therefore no need to worry of getting out your maps/phone to find your way and/or the hassle of dragging your luggage around the small town.

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While walking over to the hotel, try to see if you can make out the slight smell of sulphur in the air!

Checking-in at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Check-in time is 3pm. The hotel staff at Noboribestu Grand Hotel appears to be very particular with this. Unlike other hotels that will process your check-in and then inform you to return at a later time to collect your keys, staff here appear to not entertain any such check-ins. Instead, they will politely inform you of the check-in time and ask if you would like to deposit your luggage with them. We just dropped our luggage with them before heading out for our lunch and visiting Hell Valley, Oyunuma Pond and also the Oyunuma River Foot Bath.

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By the time we were done with our foot baths at Oyunuma River Foot Bath and having walked back to the hotel, it was already 4.20pm. We proceeded to the reception for our check-in. The staff spoke good English and it check-in was quick. We were asked to select our dining slot. Apparently, this hotel splits its dinner timing into two blocks: 5.30pm to 7pm and 7.30pm to 9pm. This may be to help facilitate with crowd control and ensure that the restaurant isn’t too pack.

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We decided to go for the earlier slot as this would free up the rest of the evening for us to enjoy the Japanese Baths provided at the hotel.

Rooms at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Wow! This room was much larger than the one we had stayed at while in Hakodate. Although a bit dated, the room was spacious. We did not get the feeling that we had to squeeze past each other and/or get around our luggage to move about the room. The sheets were clean and the beds soft. The room also had the expected writing desk, beverage area and an in-room safe.

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One interesting observation I had would be how the toilets/bathroom are done up in the rooms. Having travelled quite a bit, I have not seen a prefabricated toilet/bathroom installed in a hotel room. However, it appears to be the norm at least in all the hotels I stayed while in Japan. You will notice that the bathrooms look out of place and often not flushed against the floor of the room being slightly elevated. While not a major point, it still marks something unique. 

Speaking of uniqueness, for those travelling to Japan expect to be amazed by their butt washing technology. Most of their modern toilets are equipped with special toilet seats that come with washlets. Washlets have heated toilet seats and also water spray technology that helps wash sensitive parts. I assure you that water results in a much cleaner surface than plain old toilet paper. The heated seats felt great especially in the morning. No more cold shocks!

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Other than the usual green tea bags, the hotel doesn’t offer any other beverages. There are, however, vending machines out along the corridor and also at the ground floor where the gaming machines are located. Yes, there are slot machines in the hotel. For a sure-win machine, be sure to try out the drinks and ice cream vending machine. These “slots” offer a 100% win rate!    

Before I forget, the rooms have each a stack of yukatas of varying sizes. There is a sheet explaining how to wear and also the corresponding sizes for different height ranges. Girlfriend insisted we wear that for dinner ><. The instructions are self-explanatory. However, the only things left unsaid was what do you wear beneath your yukata and also how to tie the belt. For me, I went with a pair of shorts (for some sense of decency) and I decided to recall from memory the knot I used to tie for my judo gis. I thought the knot would be appropriate (well… they are all Japanese belts and knots right?).

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Dinner Service / Half Board at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

We were down at the Grand Hall at 5.30pm sharp and there was a queue already. I soon found out why.

Dinner service is actually a buffet service. So it made sense to go early to maximise your allocated 1.5 hours. The spread is wide so take your time to go scout for the good stuff. Once you are done, join the queue and collect your plates, chopsticks and utensils before eating your money’s worth. Some of the better items would be the sushi, the crabs, tempura (did you know tempura is a portuguese dish?), the roast beef section and also the desserts. I shall let my photos do the talking:

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Cheese melting station – Where chef melts a whole block of cheese and drizzle some of that goodness on roasted potatoes

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All in all, the food was pretty good. Don’t expect anything outstanding though.

While there are service stands pouring out beers on tap, do not be tricked into believing it is part of the dinner. Alcoholic beverages are additional items. Poor me was “forced” to buy two drinks as I felt too embarrassed to cancel my orders for fear of appearing to be a cheapo.The drinks, in any event, per affordable.

Japanese Baths at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

This was one of the more authentic baths I have experienced so far. Authentic here refers to the type of baths on offer. If you read my post on my half day Bangkok Itinerary, you will have read about me soaking in a “Japanese” onsen while in Bangkok. I had also tried out Korean baths while in Seoul and Busan last year.

The actual bath experience is about the same. You can’t really bathe differently can you?

But what sets these baths apart is the type of baths offered. The baths in Bangkok and Korea either used ordinary water or water artificially enhanced with minerals. The onsen at Noboribetsu taps into the natural sulphur rich waters in the region and is evident from the cloudy greyish brown colour of the water. The onsen also offers the more typical salt baths and also iron baths (pools filled with water rich in iron). Each type of bath has own benefits but since we are in Noboribetsu, I decided to soak longer in the sulphur baths.

One awesome feature at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel’s onsen is its outdoor baths. The hotel offers both indoor baths and outdoor baths. I encourage everyone to try the outdoor baths. Brave the cold, run out nude before dipping into that soul comforting hot pool. The experience is truly enjoyable and beyond words. Just imagine the temperature being close to 0 and you just laze about in the warm pool with snow falling all about you. Perfect.

I will explain in another post how such baths work for those interested. It is really an eye opening experience especially for visitors not used to nude bathing!

Breakfast at Noboribetsu Grand Hotel

Breakfast was again at the Grand Hall. However, unlike dinner service, there are no specified time slots for breakfast (i.e. No split service). Instead, breakfast is from 7-9am. The spread is wide with the usual (bread, yogurt, sausages for a more Western oriented breakfast and porridge, miso, rice for a more Oriental breakfast). Okay, that was an understatement. The spread is quite varied as is evident from the photos below. Nothing too spectacular but do keep an eye out for the Natto beans.

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I think this is one unique item on the buffet spread. Natto beans are fermented soybeans. The way you prepare Natto beans is to pour soy sauce (yes, let it soak in its own essence) over it and give it a good mix. It will become all slimy and sticky. Pop that goo over a hot bowl of rice and it’s ready to eat. Taste wise, it tastes better than it looks. Just make sure you have a napkin to wipe away that goo on your lips!

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Onsen Eggs

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Checking out and heading back to Noboribetsu Station

Checking out was easy. The staff had no difficulty in locating my bill from the previous night. I was in and out within 3 minutes. Heading over to the bus station took another 3 minutes.

And we were stuck.

We had forgotten to check the bus schedule and had to wait. So, please either check the timing the day before when you arrived or pop by to the station after your hike. Beats waiting at the station with your luggage.

For those headed to Sapporo, there is a bus service from Noboribetsu. 1.5 hours if I’m not wrong. You can consider this if you don’t already have a rail pass activated.

For us, it was back to the railway station and on the next Sapporo bound train.

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1 Day Noboribetsu Itinerary – What to do and see while in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

1 Day Noboribetsu Itinerary – What to do and see while in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

This is my one day itinerary covering Noboribetsu. Noboribetsu is a small town strategically located between Sapporo and Hakodate and makes for a good layover for travellers going from one city to another. The town is rather quiet and laid back and the main attraction is to experience Hell’s valley, a place so desolate that it is befitting of Dante’s circles of hell. Join me as I experience walking in Hell’s own valley. Just before your mind  starts playing tricks on you, the Onsen dates back to the Edo period and only started to play up the hell theme now. The Onsen traditionally had no links to the demons and devils currently associated with it. But with all that sulphur smelling air, it does not require too much imagination to associate the place with hell.

Getting to Noboribetsu Onsen

Noboribetsu can be reached by train from either Sapporo or Hakodate via the Hakodate line. The train ride will take approximately two hours from Hakodate. Once you get off at the station, exit the platform and head out of the station. Look out for the bus stop on your right. There is a regular bus service that takes you to the onsen area. The fare is 340 yen and operates in the same manner as the trams in Hakodate (perhaps a similar system across Japan? As to how it works, I covered it in my other post here). So prepare your coins! If you don’t have exact change, there is a coin exchange machine built into the same payment box. Drop your 500/50 yen coins into the coin slot to have it broken down into 100s/10s. Once you have your exact change, make the necessary payment.

However, unlike the trams in Hakodate, the numbers on this bus’ ticket don’t jump in order; it appears that some stops share a similar ticket number. This caused some confusion as we had the impression that we were still far from the Onsen when in fact we had actually reached. If it helps explain this better, the screen at the front of the bus would display the price payable for each ticket number. We had expected there to be at least 10 fares displayed before reaching Noboribetsu Onsen as it is the eleventh stop for that route (the 10 fares corresponding to the 10 earlier stops). Instead, only six to seven fares were shown. The only indication we had reached was the fact that the fare payable for our ticket had risen to 340 yen. Please take note of this!

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Going to be a tight squeeze. So try to get a seat asap!

Lunch at Noboribetsu: What to eat

You will likely arrive in Noboribetsu Onsen around 1pm thereabout. Head over to your accommodations to deposit your your luggage as it will be too early for you to check in (it appears that 3pm is a common check-in time). With that out of the way, head over to the main shopping street (Gokuraku Shopping Street) for your lunch.

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Don’t expect to be surrounded by loads of eateries or be overwhelmed with choices. You are no longer in Sapporo/Hakodate anymore!

We went to a small eatery that is diagonally opposite of a Family Mart store. The place appears to be a bar serving simple but good food. We ordered Takoyaki (Octopus Balls), Seafood Okonomiyaki (a kind of Japanese Pancake) and a beef bowl. Although simple, the food tasted great! The stronger flavours offered a good break from the lighter tasting seafood bowls we ate while in Hakodate (if you haven’t read it yet, I shared my experience of visiting and eating in Hakodate’s morning market here).

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There are other food stalls along the road but some of them were closed. So have a look around and see what is available. You can consider trying ramen which I read is also pretty good.

Walk to Noboribetsu Hell Valley (Noboribetsu Jigokudani) – What to see and do

A short walk from Gokuraku Shopping Street is the Hell Valley (also known as Jigokudani) which surprisingly is a free attraction! No tickets required to visit the Hell Valley and its neighbouring attractions (i.e. Oyunuma Pond and Oyunuma River Foot Bath)

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Oyunuma Pond and River Oyunuma Foot Bath

Somehow, during my research, it appeared to me that most bloggers/travellers do not venture beyond the valley to the Oyunuma Pond and the Foot Bath area. Well, at least that was based on the blogs I read. Most visitors tend to keep to the valley as it is the most accessible.

Don’t get me wrong. I think the valley is perfectly fine a spot with pretty decent views of a land so barren from the volcanic activity in the region. However, the fact that it is highly accessible also means large hordes of tourists being let loose in the area.

Thankfully, it appears that Oyunuma Pond and also the River Oyunuma Foot Bath have eluded the tourists. Both attractions together make whole the entire Noboribetsu experience and should feature in your travel itinerary if you do visit Noboribetsu.

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The Hell Valley is at the bottom right. Take the green trail to the main crossing before taking the loop up to Oyunuma Pond and then towards the Foot Baths.

Don’t be put off by the map. Both attractions are actually within short walking distance from the Hell Valley. To reach the River Oyunuma Foot Bath from the Hell Valley via Oyunuma Pond would take approximately 1.5 hours with multiple stops along the way for photos. Just continue following the path and the directional signs placed along the route. The climb starts off pretty gentle before becoming physically demanding as gentle inclined slopes become replaced with steps. So for those who may have difficulty climbing, you might want to give yourself some extra time to take it slowly. Do take care especially when attempting the hike after a bout of wet weather. As the paths are mainly dirt paths, they become wet and muddy. At certain areas, the path becomes slippery from the wet mushy layer of dead leaves covering it. The hike is the toughest at the earlier stage as you climb up to a peak overlooking the pond. Thereafter the hike is mostly downhill:

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Oyunuma Pond is a huge body of water that is 50 degrees (metric) at its surface and 130 degrees (metric) at its deepest point. Take some time to wash the waters bubbling away from the thermal heat radiating from the earth’s molten core. Be mindful of the wind direction as a strong gust in the wrong direction will have you covered in a warm sulphur smelling mist!

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Once you are well soaked by the sulphur smelling mist, the Oyunuma River Foot Bath is about a 15 minutes walk away. Follow the sign and stay on the road. Do stop once a while and look back for a different perspective of Oyunuma Pond. Isn’t the view splendid?

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The pond is emptying out into a small river. This is the start of the Oyunuma River.

You will soon be diverted off the road and back onto a path down into the trees. This path will bring you right down by the edge of the river. The water is still hot but has cooled down considerably in the short distance it flowed since it last left the Oyunuma Pond. Keep following the river and you will spot a man made structure further downstream: A wooden platform parallel to the river. You reached the foot baths!

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The Oyunuma River Foot Bath offers a unique experience of being able to enjoy a natural hot spring right at its source in the middle of a forest. A truly authentic experience! The water temperature here is actually cooler than I expected it to be. If you been to a man made bath, you will be used to waters ranging from 37 degrees to 39 degrees. These waters would have likely been artificially heated back up to achieve such temperatures. Here, the foot bath feels slightly cooler than that. Well, maybe slightly above body temperature? I do suggest testing the water first before dipping in just in case sudden volcanic activity had heated the water up. The water depth here is shallow and you can wade in the river barefooted. Look out for the plastic sheets available on a nearby rack that you can sit on if you don’t want to get your pants wet or dirty.

 

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From the foot baths, it’s about a 10 minutes’ walk back to the edge of the town. Along the way, you may notice tourists bringing their own towels and making their way to the foot baths. If your accommodations are close to the edge of town, you can always consider popping by again later in the evening or early in the morning for a quiet soak.

This is my 1 day itinerary for Noboribetsu covering all the must sees and must dos while in Noboribetsu. If time permits, you may consider including in a visit to the bear park (which was closed for inspections when I was there). As to my dinner, I will cover it in another post where I will review my stay at the Grand Hotel in Noboribetsu and also its half board service. Be sure to look out for it in the coming days.

Bonus Content: Visiting Noboribetsu while on a budget

For those travelling on a budget, there is an alternative itinerary that you can consider that can help you save some money. Instead of staying one night at Noboribetsu Onsen, the other alternative is to make it a side trip on route to either Sapporo or Hakodate and have your luggage deposited at the station while you are there (there are both coin lockers and left luggage services). This will allow you to save on your accommodations as hotels at the Onsen area are typically more expensive than in the main cities.

Take an early train into Noboribetsu Station before 10am. This leaves you almost the entire day to explore Noboribetsu Onsen. You can visit the Hell Valley, Oyunuma Pond and the foot baths before heading back to Gokuraku Shopping Street for lunch. You can then for a small fee visit any one of the baths offered by the hotels and/or the public baths for a soak. Once you are done, you can then take the bus back to the train station, retrieve your luggage before heading to your intended destination.

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1 Day Hakodate-Onuma Park Itinerary (What to see, do and eat while in Hakodate, Hokkaido)

1 Day Hakodate-Onuma Park Itinerary (What to see, do and eat while in Hakodate, Hokkaido)

Onuma Park is one of the must sees on every itinerary for Hakodate. Other than a short statement that Onuma Park can be done as a day trip or as a short stopover, most guides are silent as to the actual logistics and also the actual time you will likely spend in Onuma Park. This makes any planning difficult other than to block off an entire day just for Onuma Park. I hope my itinerary guide will help in your itinerary planning and make Onuma Park more accessible for all.

This guide is in two parts.

The first half is my 1 day experience/itinerary visiting landmark attractions in both Hakodate and Onuma.

The second half covers some FAQ (what I think most tourists would ask when planning their trip to Onuma).

Breakfast – Hakodate

Hakodate was one of the first few ports in Japan that opened up to the West. Being a port city, it has its own fish markets selling fresh seafood. While there are a few markets scattered around Hakodate, the Morning Market is the most accessible being located right beside Hakodate Station.

This market is a perfect spot for a traveller to grab a seafood bowl (Kaisen don) in Hakodate. For the uninitiated, this is a bowl of rice served with loads of seafood on top. A few must tries include sea urchin and crab being the signature produce of Hokkaido.

Feel free to walk around the market but don’t be pressured into entering the shops/restaurants. One thing I noticed is that the shops along the main fish market area are devoid of locals. Hint: That must mean something.

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We had two breakfasts there on two separate days. The first time round, we decided to pop into one of the shops along the main market area (i.e. One along the street).

The prices looked affordable at 1,000 yen for a bowl with two types of seafood and 1,500 for three types. We also ordered grilled shellfish: An oyster and also a surf clam (total 1,600 yen).

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Somehow, the food was just so-so. Girlfriend was disappointed. Although the pricing was reasonable (if you ignore the 1,600 yen we spent on the shellfish), the overall portion/food display wasn’t the best and/or value for money.

Note to self and all readers: if traveling on a budget, be sure to check out the prices of different stalls. The prices tend to vary and also the serving portions (although the latter is harder to gauge until you are served the actual bowl)

During our visit the next morning, we went to a different area that is just slightly off the main market street. The place is located inside a mall/plaza that is directly opposite from Hakodate station.

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Inside the mall/plaza there is a whole row of small shops selling what appears to us as being a variant of the same thing (different combinations of Kaisen dons). Being essentially the same, there is nothing much to distinguish the shops by other than the human traffic flow. We randomly (well sort of, having eliminated the stalls at both ends and just settled with the stalls in the middle) picked one stall that looked busy. Upon entering the stall, we were pleased with what we saw. Unlike our experience the previous morning, this stall was packed and you see locals having their breakfast there.

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Although the food was slightly more expensive averaging 2500 yen plus per person, the overall quality and presentation was way better. We also threw in a plate of salmon sashimi. The sashimi is firmer than those we get back home in Singapore. Fresher?

While you roam the area, be sure to buy yourself a slice of the Hokkaido melon. Although we didn’t know it then, the prices in Hakodate are one of the cheapest (@200-300 yen per slice) when you compare with places like Sapporo and Otaru (@500 yen per slice).

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Once you are done with breakfast, head over to Hakodate Station. If you don’t have a JR pass (click here to read more about my experience using the pass), buy yourself a ticket to Onumakoen Station. If you already have JR pass, you can head over to the same ticket counter and ask to reserve seats for the next train headed that way. As to train timings, you can either get a brochure/ask at the station or you can check online at hyperdia. As mentioned in my earlier post, I found hyperdia timings to be reliable. I covered the basics on using hyperdia here.

Hakodate to Onuma Park

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Getting there

The ride takes approximately 30 mins.

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Once you get out of the station, head over to the tourist center and get yourself a map of the area. Although not essential (the trails in the park are marked with direction markers at important intersections), having a map is helpful to get your bearings at the initial stage. Follow the road to a bus parking area. The path to the park is on the right side of the parking area.

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Onuma Park walking trails (Part 1)

Once you reach the main plaza area, there are a few options available. You can take a boat ride around the lake, you can rent a bicycle and cycle around or you can attempt the walking trails.

My suggestion is you stick to the trails while in Onuma Park. Why? Bicycles are not allowed on the trails. You will be forced to go along the main roads. Unless you have trouble walking, the boats I feel may be restrictive. You can’t just stop and take in the view or try to get the perfect shot. If my memory serves me right, it will cost you a 1,000 yen for a 30 mins ride. Just stick with the trails!

There are essentially two main paths you can take. A small loop on the right that will bring you to the monument of a thousand winds and a big loop that will see you island hopping. Both loops are recommended as each offer different views of the park.

We did the small loop first (surprisingly by mistake having mistaken the bridge crossing as the one leading to the big loop). Be sure to look out for the spot by the shore that offers a great photo taking opportunity.

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Once we were done, we headed to the correct bridge leading to the big loop. A pretty decent photo spot just before crossing the bridge and a random shot of a raven taking flight:

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Upon crossing the bridge, you will be greeted with a sign at the intersection. You can either go left or right (this is a loop and either way will see you finish at this same spot). Go right. The views are better with the wide open surfaces overlooking the lake.

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While it looks far on the map, the actual distance is quite walkable. It will take you around 50 mins with multiple stops to get to the default rest stop along the trail.

Lunch at Table de Rivage

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The restaurant is located in the park itself and its location is ideal for visitors to stop for lunch. The restaurant offers set lunches varying from 1,600 plus yen to 2,000 plus yen.

The main difference other than the main course is the salad offered as part of the more expensive set. The sets also come with a small bowl of mushroom soup which was pretty good.

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Speaking of the main courses on offer, Table de Rivage often appears on suggested itineraries because of one particular ingredient prepared and served in the restaurant: Onuma Beef. The restaurant does offer Onuma Beef on its lunch menus. If you ordered the cheaper set, you will be served roast beef. The more expensive set comes with beef stew or a hamburger steak.

We ordered the roast beef and also the beef stew to share.

You may ask which is better.

Personally, both dishes appear average  to me for specific reasons.

For the roast beef, don’t expect sirloin quality steaks. Its a roast beef! While the butcher/chef tried to salvage the meat by cutting against the grain (i.e. cutting across the meat fibres) and making the meat easier to chew, it was still slightly too tough for my liking. The sauce provided, however, complements the dish and adds more flavour while you chew.

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For the stew, the serving we got had a good proportion of meat and fat. The fat is crucial for the dish as the meat is very lean. Don’t get me wrong, the meat breaks up just by pressing on it with a fork and is tender. It just doesn’t have the fat to make it work. So, my suggestion, is to ration out the fatty chunks to tide you across your whole plate. One subjective comment here is the gravy, my girlfriend didn’t like the gravy. I suspect this depends on the individual. I personally felt it was okay but not mind blowing.

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We finished off the meal with a cup of coffee.

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Onuma Park walking trails (Part 2)

Lunch completed and with bellies full, we headed back out to finish what we started. The walk back was completely different from the walk earlier. Instead of the views of the wide open lake, the paths now bring you through wooded area. This offers a big contrast to the views earlier.

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I think you will now get what I meant when I said to take the right side of the loop first. If you had gone left of the loop, I think it would be a downer to just see wooded areas since the main highlight of this walk is the lake and the views by the lake.

Onuma Park to Hakodate

We checked the train schedules and made our way back to the train station. Either refer to the pamphlet you took from Hakodate station or just check by Hyperdia for the next train coming into the station. Again, you can either make a reservation with the ticket counter (if you are travelling using the JR pass) or just risk it by going to the unreserved section of the train. For this trip, we just went with the unreserved seats.

Depending on the time of day you get back to Hakodate and also the month you travelling in, your itinerary can vary. Obviously, more daylight hours during summer offers a longer day to cover more things. For us, as we were travelling during the onset of winter, night comes in pretty fast.

One suggested itinerary can include visiting the Bay Area in Hakodate, Motomachi and then taking the ropeway up Mount Hakodate for the night view of Hakodate.

You may have to shuffle this around a bit depending on your objectives. For instance, if you intend to do some shopping at the Bay Area, it may not be as practical to carry your shopping bags up to the Mountain. So be sure to factor this into your itinerary planning and maybe include a short detour to your hotel/hostel.

Hakodate Bay Area

Getting to Hakodate Bay Area

The Bay Area is easily accessible either on foot from Hakodate Station or just a tram ride to Jiujigai.

If budgeting is not an issue (it shouldn’t be as the fare is around 210 yen), why not give their trams a try? A common question I think for most tourist unfamiliar with trams is how to actually make payment. The trams in Hakodate are simple to use. If you have taken a tram in Hong Kong before, the trams here operate in a similar way: you board at the back and pay at the front when alighting. Be sure to take a ticket when boarding as this will determine the fare payable. The machine is located at the entrance at the back.

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The ticket will have a number printed on it corresponding to the stop you boarded at. There is a screen at the front of the tram. The screen will constantly refresh to show the price of your ticket (find the stop number printed on your ticket). If you are travelling by tram quite a bit (i.e. more than 3 rides in day), consider getting a day pass for better value.

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Shopping at Hakodate Bay Area

The Bay Area is where the old brick warehouses are located in Hakodate. The area has now been converted into a shopping district offering tax free shopping if you purchase above 5,400 yen. Have a look around and see whether anything catches your fancy. We ended up buying gifts (food snacks to distribute) for our colleagues.

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The area preserves the old nostalgic look. This metal door retains the rusted look. There is a glass panel behind to keep out the weather.

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Where to eat at Hakodate Bay Area

If you are hungry, the Bay Area offers a number of eateries to choose from.

While there, we tried a secret place stashed away in a convenience store that offers cheap barbecue skewers.

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The secret meat skewer place is hidden in the convenience store just beside the Lucky Pierrot shop

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Sushi

We also went to a sushi rotating belt restaurant where we decided to splurge with plates of Hakodate specialities (plates with 3 sushis of expensive cuts of seafood that average around 600 to 700 yen a plate).

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Drinks

We finished our dinner at Hakodate Beer. I couldn’t resist going in to give their beers a taste. I went with the Alt and the Ale. While I did not know what an Alt is, it tasted similar to their ales. Pretty good ales comparable to those I tried while in England.

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Motomachi and Mount Hakodate

From the Bay area, both Motomachi and Mount Hakodate are within easy reach. We didn’t manage to do Mount Hakodate due to bad weather. It had rained the entire day while we were in Onuma Park and also continued to rain during the evening. Coupled with the low temperatures, Mount Hakodate was covered in a ring of fog. While I attempted to drag my girlfriend to the ropeway station from the Bay Area, I too gave up as we approached the ropeway station. The fog was so bad that I actually lost eye contact with the cable cars heading up the ropeway. The fog had completely engulfed the cable cars after a certain point. As visibility was bad, we had to call it off.

Note to self: If you have the chance to do such weather dependent attractions, maybe consider squeezing them in as early in your itinerary as possible and not leave it to your last night in Hakodate.

While there, consider making a reservation with 阿さ利本店 that apparently serves very good Sukiyaki. While I had planned for a super early dinner at 5.30pm, it was apparently not early enough as the place was fully booked.

FAQ – Onuma Park

Is it possible to do Onuma Park as a side trip while on route to Sappro/Noboribetsu/Hakodate?

Yes. It is possible to do Onuma Park as a side trip. Each station offers coin lockers where you can deposit your luggage for a fee. I don’t remember this exactly but Onuma Park station may have a separate manned luggage office as well.

Do you require a full day of sightseeing for Onuma Park?

For most, the answer is no. You can incorporate Onuma Park as part of a day’s itinerary. You don’t have to allocate a full day for this. First, the park is only 30 minutes from Hakodate and feels like just another attraction to visit. You don’t have to waste time travelling out. Second, the park is surprisingly small and you can cover the trails within 2 hours.

Of course, if you prefer to go for a sightseeing cruise or a bicycle ride, that will extend your stay in Onuma Park.

What are the ticket prices for Onuma Park?

Free. Absolutely Free.

Postscript: I hope you enjoyed this post. I apologise for the length but I thought it would be appreciated if I gave you a more detailed itinerary/account of my trip to Onuma Park and also Hakodate. Please like if you found this post meaningful in anyway and also remember to follow to help support this blog.

My Japan Rail Experience – Tokyo to Hakodate, Hokkaido (and Mini-Guide to Japan Railway and JR Pass)

Arriving at Narita Airport

For those joining us for the first time, I covered the basics behind a Japan Rail Pass in one of my earlier posts. To briefly summarise, as tourist travelling in Japan, you are entitled to purchase rail passes that allow you unlimited train rides across Japan on Japan Rail (“JR”) operated lines. The passes are economical if you intend to travel to multiple destinations that are connected by rail. The passes typically lasts for a few days (e.g. The pass that I got was a 6 days flexible pass valid over 14 days). If you are interested in finding out more, you can do so here.

We arrived in Narita Airport early in the morning on a JAL flight from Bangkok the night before. Clearing customs was quick and we were off to find the pass exchange office. When purchasing a pass, you don’t actually get the physical pass itself. Instead, you will be provided an “Exchange Order”. This is likely to prevent fraud on JR as these passes are meant only for tourists and non-resident Japanese. You have to exchange the “Exchange Order” for the actual passes which looks, to me, like a mini passport.

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We went down to the basement of Narita Airport Terminal Two. The JR office where we were supposed to change the pass was closed. Instead, there was a sign directing us to go over to the Narita Express queues (directly opposite the JR office). There were two queues. One for exchanging of passes and the other to purchase tickets for the Narita Express. The waiting time was short. You will be asked to fill in a form with your basic information and passport details. The counter staff will then issue you your JR pass.

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For those traveling to Hakodate from Tokyo, you can at the same time reserve your seats with the staff issuing you your passes for both the Narita Express and also the Shinkansen to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station. The Narita Express will take you to Tokyo Station from Narita Airport. You can then take the Shinkansen to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station before having to make a transfer via a local line to Hakodate Station.

For those travelling to Tokyo from Narita Airport, the Narita Express also provides a direct link to Tokyo and takes around an hour or so.

If you are using a JR Pass, you will be by now holding two kinds of tickets: The JR Pass and your reserved seats tickets. As these reserved seats tickets were registered under your passes, they don’t appear to work at the gantries. Instead you have to present your JR passes to the staff manning the counter on the side. He will then stamp and mark off on your pass in the small row of square boxes (i.e. indicate your first use of the pass which will be relevant for determining when your pass actually expires).

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If you were wondering about the train schedules, I found the schedules on Hyperdia to be reliable. I discussed it in my earlier post on JR Passes.

The Narita Express is comfortable with sufficient legroom. There are both overhead racks and also luggage racks at the rear and front of each car to deposit your luggage. For those paranoid or concerned about theft, the luggage areas at the rear and front are equipped with locks to help tie down your luggage.

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Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuoto

Getting off Tokyo Station, you will be greeted with signs directing you to the Shinkansen platforms. Follow the signs. Along the way you will find various shops selling bentos and other food items. If you have a sufficient buffer time such that you won’t miss your train, you can consider purchasing a bento and some beverages for your train ride. As the train ride to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto from Tokyo will take close to four plus hours, we got ourselves some bentos:

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Follow the signs to the Shinkansen area where you will have to present your Rail Pass to the counter staff again. He will just verify the pass since it has already been stamped by his counterpart at Narita Airport. Look out for display boards showing which platform your train will be departing from. Each ticket will have a car number followed by a seat number. The car number tells you which “car” or cabin you are located in.

The platforms at Tokyo Station appear to be busy as they have “First Departure” and “Second Departure” lanes. If your train is departing first (check the display board right above each queue), join the queue for “First Departure”.

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If you are lucky enough, you can catch a glimpse of Japanese efficiency as their train cleaning crews take approximately 10 minutes to do a turn around and have the train cleaned before the next scheduled departure.

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The Shinkansen, like the Narita Express, offered a comfortable ride. However, unlike the Narita Express, it does not have designated luggage areas at the front and rear of each cabin. So if you have an exceptionally large luggage, you can either risk it and leave it at the front or rear or you can bring them to your seats. There is sufficient legroom to squeeze in your luggage in between the seats.

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Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Hakodate

Four hours and twenty-seven minutes later, we alighted at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. Did I mention that the Japanese got their train timings down to the minute?

Follow the signs to exit the station and just before you cross the gantry you will see signs directing you to a transfer to Hakodate Station. As with the other two gantries, you will have to present your Rail Pass to the counter staff. Having verified your passes, they will wave you on towards the platforms where you will board a local train bound for Hakodate station. There will be signs directly you towards the correct platform:

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Depending on the local train you actually board, the seats appear to be different. On our journey towards Hakodate, we got a metro-like type of train. We have also during our stay in Hakodate saw “normal” trains with front facing seats. It may be the case that there are different train services serving the lines.

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My Experience on JR?

This was my experience riding Japan Rail for the first time. All in all, the experience was pleasant. In fact, having taken a variety of national rails (Trenitalia, Deutsche Bahn, Great Western Railway (England), Eurostar), I found my experience with Japan Rail to be the most enjoyable. The train service is efficient and punctual. Despite possible language barriers, I found JR staff to be proficient in the English language and also Chinese. Communication was not an issue as well. While the Rail Passes are not cheap, they are actually reasonable when you take into account the cost savings when travelling to multiple destinations.

If you are travelling around Japan, why not get yourself a Japan Rail Pass?

Remember to “like” if you enjoyed reading this. Please also “follow” to support this blog!

 

Blog update – Japan 2017

Hi guys!

Just dropping in with a quick update on the blog. I have been busy travelling the last few days. I was again back in Kaohsiung, Taiwan for a work trip. Starting to feel like a second home of sorts now. If you haven’t checked out my entries for Kaohsiung, they can be found here. Speaking of which, I have a review pending for a pretty good restaurant in Kaohsiung specializing in all things chicken.

While I was caught up with work, I am leaving tonight for my next adventure (thankfully, leisure instead of work). I will be visiting Bangkok again for a short layover before heading over to Tokyo, Japan.

I hope to keep you guys updated during my trip.

Really awesome content is coming your way including an awesome travel hack that saw me bagging a Business Class return ticket to Japan for less than SGD1000! Been too long since I last flew Business ^ ^.

I will also be covering attractions both in Bangkok and also Japan where I will be visiting Hakodate, Noboribetsu, Sapporo, Otaru and Tokyo. So, also expect my own travel guide for Japan to feature in my next few posts!

Also lined up are my travel reviews of Japan Rail, my experience using a pocket wifi router, and all the yummy delicious food that I will be munching away while in Japan.

So keep a look out for this blog.

Remember to follow so as to be kept updated as and when I post all this awesome content!

 

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