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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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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?

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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!

 

Must dos other than Borobudur when in Yogyakarta: Part Two

In one of my earlier posts, I covered two other locations I thought was a must do while in Yogyakarta: Jomblang Cave (Goa Jomblang) and Timang Beach. I cover another attraction in this post that is often left out from itineraries overly focused on the temples of Borobudur and Prambanan.

This other must see in Yogyakarta is Mount Merapi. This attraction should be included as part of your Borobudur and Prambanan itinerary and is an excellent interlude between the two temples.

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Mount Merapi is an active stratovolcano located on the border between Central Java and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. It is the most active volcano in Indonesia and has erupted regularly since 1548. It sits at 2,965 metres above sea level.

Depending on your schedule, Mount Merapi offers a great opportunity for a jeep tour along the mud and gravel paths leading close to the volcano. The experience can last between 90 minutes to almost a half a day depending on how long you rent the jeep together with the driver. I found the price to be affordable and well worth the trip. The jeep itinerary varies with the length of time you are renting and you typically cover more if you take the longer packages. However, if you just want a flavour, the shortest package would suffice as you not only get to have one hell of a bumpy ride but also the chance of visiting a few attractions along the way: The alien head; the museum of sorts that is the leftover relic of a village destroyed by the previous eruption; Bunker Kaliadem where you will have quite a close up view of the volcano.

The ride itself was bumpy but exhilarating. I was hanging on to dear life while trying not to be flung out of the jeep on parts where the path became extremely bumpy. The views were amazing especially coupled with the bright sunny weather. Although sunny, the ride was surprisingly cool given the elevation and also the wind that blowing against your face as you zoom about in your rented jeep. There were at times sobering moments like when you visit the museum converted from a village destroyed during the 2010 eruption and get to witness the power of mother nature. There were also times where you are intrigued by the odd Alien head and also amazed at the views of the volcano. This activity definitely contrasted against my visit to Borobudur just hours before and offers a nice break against any possible temple monotony.

Below are some of the shots I took while on my jeep tour. I can’t seem to find the video clips I took =(

At the depot

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Views along the way during jeep tour of Mount Merapi

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Museum – The relic of a village destroyed by the eruption on 5 November 2010

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Alien Head and surrounding view, Mount Merapi

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Bunker Kaliadem, inside Bunker Kaliadem and surrounding view, Mount Merapi

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All in all, the ride was pretty awesome and I definitely recommend that you make a mental note to include this attraction into your Borobudur itinerary. I definitely did not regret including this into my own itinerary!

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