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Togakushi, Nagano – Ski Trip

 

Known for soba noodles, Togakushi in Nagano prefecture, is not as famous as the larger ski resorts like Niseko in Hokkaido or Yuzawa in Niigata, but it is absolutely one of my favorite ski resorts. The view from Mt. Menou summit, with the natural snowflake twinkle filter, in the cold, crisp air, is an unforgettable scene that is so addictive, it will definitely make you want to visit again.

A 90-minute local bus ride from Nagano station will take you directly to the ski slopes of the Togakushi ski region. I went with 4 of my friends this year and we drove from Tokyo. It took us around 4 hours, which included escaping from the crazy Friday night traffic.

Unlike the larger ski resorts, Togakushi does not have major hotels or luxurious facilities, so we stayed at a lodge near the slopes. As I mentioned, it’s not a high-end vicinity so we had a 7-minute walk to the ski lift’s lowest point. Walking the snow trail slightly uphill with your ski boots and equipment can be exhausting, to be honest, but I actually consider this as the good part; as Togakushi is not the easiest ski area to get to there tends to be fewer group tours and school ski trips. Besides, not only do you get to have a good warm-up, but the trails with the white birch trees are absolutely beautiful in the snow.

 

Being a little inconvenient to get to, most of the users here have experienced the major ski resorts and ended up here – a place that they come to improve. Therefore, more than half of the skiers and snowboarders here are middle to high experience and skill level so there is no need to worry about being crashed by beginners (or vice versa.)

But no worries for beginners! There are decent schools for both skiing and snowboarding around the area for all ages and all levels. I was surprised to see many middle-aged skiers (at insanely high levels) taking lessons. This really made me think about the word in Japanese, “生涯スポーツ” (shougai-sports) meaning “lifelong-sports” which are sports and exercises that anyone at any age can enjoy easily to stay fit and healthy. Skiing is definitely one of them, and it is one of the things I would like to keep on doing even when I turn 80 years old.

Slopes at Togakushi are 30% beginner-level courses, 40% middle-level courses, 30% high-level courses, and more than 80% of the ground is compacted snow. The powder snow is relatively good even though the amount of snow is smaller than other mountains in Nagano. It is also quite rare these days that there are more skiers than snowboarders. The highest point is at the top of Mt. Menou (1,748m) and the stunning view from the summit is something you never get tired of seeing.

Although we went on a weekend, the queue to get in the lifts was less than a minute wait, which is a very important; the more we ski, the hungrier we get!

And speaking of hungry, the meals at Yanagiran (https://tabelog.com/en/nagano/A2001/A200101/20009261/) are a must try:) In order to attract repeat visitors and regulars, Togakushi must satisfy, so the “expensive-but-not-so-worth-it” food that you find at the larger resorts won’t do. Yanagiran serves homemade beef stews and freshly baked curries. The restaurant is usually packed during lunch time. If you are a cheese lover, I recommend you to go early because the local people have their eyes on the hot melted raclette cheese dishes which has a limited supply each day. This is due to the restaurant being literally in the mountains. (You need to be able to ski, snowboard or roll down the hill to even get there.)

 

Togakushi ski area does not provide “nighter,” which is the Japanese term for night skiing, so when the lifts stop around 4:30 PM, it’s time to head back before the sun goes down. Walking back again, no magical shuttle bus will arrive. In case you see one, you are probably suffering from hypothermia and hallucinating so get yourself together and make yourself warm. I actually missed a turn (even though it was my 7th or 8th time staying there) going off track by 100 meters and I had to turn my GPS on to find my way back – that is how beautiful the scenery is… Luckily, I found my way back and keeping yourself warm is no problem in the lodge we stayed in.

森の宿めるへん (mori-no-yado-Märchen) http://web.mytrip.net/my/info_page_e.Eng?f_no=5833&f_ptn1=kaigai meaning “Fairytale – the lodge in the forest” has not only a cute name, it has an atmosphere to match, including a common room with a fireplace and floor heating. The guests naturally gather in the common room after dinner and spend the night as they like. Watching the snow fall with a cup of tea by the fireplace is another reason it makes me want to come back. Or you can help yourself to the whisky behind the bar.

After leaving the Togakushi mountain, you do not want to forget trying the soba noodles which requires pure water to make. Togakushi is the perfect place to make them because of the snowmelt water. Sobanomi (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g298565-d3610498-Reviews-Sobanomi-Nagano_Nagano_Prefecture_Chubu.html) has a cozy ambience with many kinds of dishes to choose from. (First-time soba eaters, please be aware that soba can cause an allergic reaction to people who have never tried buckwheat before.)

Togakushi Shrine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Togakushi_Shrine) is another amazing place to visit with the silently falling snow, adding an enchanted effect. Around Nagano station, there is the famous temple Zenkō-ji (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zenk%C5%8D-ji) and if you are an art person, I am sure you will enjoy the Nagano Prefectural Shinano Art Museum (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g298565-d388271-Reviews-Nagano_Prefectural_Shinano_Art_Museum_Higashiyama_Kaii_Gallery-Nagano_Nagano_Prefe.html). Exhibition arts by Higashiyama Kaii who was inspired by the scenery of Nagano is definitely worth visiting too.

 

 

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A Trail Run in Kamakura

Kamakura is a seaside city located just south of Tokyo, in Kanagawa prefecture, that is not only well-known for its time-honored shrines and temples with the Great Buddha statue, but also for its variety of hiking courses, ranging from easy paths, that young children and elders can enjoy, to steep rocky trails that not even the locals know exist.

I recently participated in a trail/road run and hike group event held by a running & cycling station in the Minato-Mirai area, Yokohama (The Space –  http://thespace.jp). The event was held for trail running beginners and for experienced runners who would like to explore the deep Kamakura forest.

The event was guided by a local, who I seriously think knew the trails better than the squirrel we encountered. Going in and out of trails, sometimes on roads and hiking up the steep hills occasionally, this was a full day event starting from Kamakura station on the JR Yokosuka Line, with our final goal to watch the sunset at Inamuragasaki Park.

10:00 AM

Despite the snow the day before, both a perfect blue sky and the guide for the day greeted me at Kamakura station. Lockers were available right outside of the station gate to keep my belongings I wouldn’t be needing during the day. The condition of the trails and details of the course were explained, followed by self-introductions to the members – this might seem a bit awkward, but here in Japan, we’re all about being polite, so it’s conventional!

The course was meant to be 15km, and by saying “meant to be”, yes, there were a few unexpected impromptu arrangements as the day went on.

Anyway, off we go!

Starting from the historical Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, we entered the trail from the back of the shrine. Then going in from the back entrance of Kenchōji, I was fascinated by the multitude of Crow-Tengu statues that vigorously welcomed us. One interesting titbit the guide told us, there’s a Japanese soup dished called “Kenchin-jiru” which is cooked with root vegetables, tofu and shiitake mushrooms in clear kombu stock. It is said that the soup was named after Kenchōji when it was first made and eaten by Buddhist monks.

During the trails, there were a few parts where ropes and handrails (some untrustworthy) were fixed to help climbing up and down, but mainly it was a narrow trail road, just enough for one or two people to get by. The area is known for the seven “Kiridoshi,“ which are man-made passages through the rugged mountain. They were used for transportation and defense system for the “bakufu” (government), during the Kamakura era.

12:30 PM – Lunch time!
We stopped at a convenience store to have a quick bite. As introduced in our previous blog article (Cheap & Healthy Eating in Japan), it is super easy to eat clean in Japan. So, 100% fruit juice for recovery and carb-loading for the afternoon, but still keeping it healthy is no problem. This time of year (mid-February), having a cup of soup with the hot water service provided by the store or a ”niku-man” (Chinese steamed meat bun) straight out of the steamer is a great and delicious way to keep yourself warm.

 

Sidenote – Kamakura is a city with big shrines and temples, which means there are lots of cafes and yummy Japanese dessert shops. Good research, in advance, and course planning to visit them is an appetizing way to enjoy Kamakura.

 

After a quick lunch, resuming our run, the course lead us to more shrines such as the famous Zeniarai Benten Ugafuku Shrine, which worships the god of money, 銭洗い”zeni-arai” – literally meaning “coin washing”, it is said that when the money is washed with the shrine’s spring water, the amount will multiply. We also stopped by Sasuke Inari, one of the least visited, yet possibly the most breathtaking and photogenic shrine, honoring the Fox God.

At this point, I started doubting my Strava app having a glitch from the Shogun spirits being angry at us for wandering and running around their grave, but we had actually already run way more than it was planned (and we were still kilometers away from the sunset point).

To be honest, my running career is not that long. Running itself seemed and felt like torture just a while ago, but for the past 20km, the lush forest kept me so energized and the trivia our guide told us every now and then kept me intrigued (even for someone like me who never paid attention in history class).

I kept on forgetting the whole purpose of the event was to watch the sunset until the temperature suddenly dropped and bits of snow started to fall. Then, it was something that kept on bothering me until…

Around 5:00 PM

Running along the nostalgic Eno-den train tracks, we finally caught a glimpse of the ocean with the shimmering reflection of the sun getting ready for bed after a long day.

We made it just in time and luckily, the snow cloud that kept on following us (our own personal flurry is what Olaf would call it) was gone by then. I have seen the sun set from the same point in the past several times but this time was definitely my favorite by far after the 23km adventure.

If the entire west side of the scene was clear, we would have been able to see Mt. Fuji clearly, but, unfortunately, we could only see the skirt of the mountain this day. Maybe next time:)

5:30 PM

After taking in all the satisfaction of achieving our goal (and taking lots of pictures), it was time to go home. The group was divided into two; people running back or taking the Eno-den line back, either way to Kamakura station where we started off that morning. I chose to run but if you have never taken the Eno-den line, I am sure the mini journey from Inamuragasaki station to Kamakura station will be a memorable experience. The single-track train with just 4 cars (or 2 cars depending on the day and time) that goes through notable tourist spots will let you enjoy a retro time travel – a sight for sore eyes… and hopefully for sore legs too :)

 


Where you can eat Kenchin-jiru

A small Japanese restaurant, Kamakura Gozan (鎌倉五山) is located close to Kita-Kamakura station. The casual, but classic, Japanese style restaurant looks like time has stopped for a long time. The Kenchin-jiru they serve has a slightly different recipe from stated as the original but still a delightful warm dish especially in the wintertime. Reservations are not needed.

Address: 1435 Yamanouchi, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa-ken 247-0062

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Pictures from a run in beautiful Hakone.

A short post of pictures from my weekend running in beautiful Hakone.

SekishoHakone TownTori Gate, Hakone. Views of lake AshiViews of lake AshiCyclist Enjoying the Path. Winding green trailsBamboo pathwayView of Lake AshiLake AshiHakone OnsenHalf Marathon in Hakone.

With a last minute decision made to join a friend for a weekend in Hakone, I was happy to have discovered a very pleasant half marathon distance run half way around Lake Ashi . The run includes a reasonably steep climb at the halfway point and takes you to a peak of the Hakone Skyline which rewards you with magnificent views of the lake and surrounding mountains. I also rediscovered the sheer bliss of a soothing hot spring Onsen for post run recovery and relaxation!

If you are looking for an energizing weekend away from the buzz of Tokyo city, then I highly recommend Hakone as a destination for you to run free among the trails of the mountainside, to enjoy the cool country air, the relaxation of the hot spring Onsen baths and the to take in the spectacular countryside views.


Tips on Hakone

  • Hakone is a short 1hr trip on the Shinkansen from Tokyo Station or around 2hrs by regular rail on the Odakyu line
  • Consider staying in a Ryokan as I have done previously, many of which have their own private Onsen and not to mention the warm local hospitality provided
  • Stay a night or two and improve your chances to catch views of Mt.Fuji. Sadly this trip I did not as it was covered by clouds the whole time.

Tips for Onsen

  • When taking Onsen be sure to scrub yourself silly using the soap and showers provided before hopping into the hot tubs, it’s an important part of the culture to be pristinely clean
  • While they are separated male and female, be prepared for full nudity as swimming wear is not generally acceptable in the Onsen and the little towel provided doesn’t offer you much to cover up with!
  • You may be asked to cover up tattoos if using a public Onsen
  • Enjoy! Nothing beat’s hot Onsen for recovery after a long cool run in the mountains.

Tips for running in Hakone

  • I will be researching and returning to Hakone for more running, so this will become a separate post sometime in the future
  • Take a running backpack with hydration capacity for longer runs as you might want to head off the beaten path and need your own supply of hydration & food
  • Ensure you check the weather forecast and take warm gear as the mountains can get cold and change quickly despite the sun being out
  • It gets dark quickly, plan your timing and ensure you are safely done before night falls

 

Hakone, in Japan’s Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park west of Tokyo, is a mountainous region known for hot springs resorts and Mt. Fuji views. It also encompasses Hakone Jinja, a Shinto shrine with a red “torii” gate; Lake Ashi, which can be toured by boat; and the boiling sulphur springs of Owakudani valley, seen from the Hakone Ropeway cable car.