|Live Like a Local
Dean Unglert, Will You Accept… These Japanese Cherry Blossoms?
I just returned home after visiting the beautiful country of Japan for the second time in my life. I was there July of 2018 for about a week and only got a small taste of what this incredible place has to offer. I always knew I had to come back in order to fully appreciate its diverse landscape, so this time, I had the opportunity of teaming up with All Nippon Airways (ANA) and got to explore way more than I bargained for.
However, before I touched down, I experienced a taste of the Japanese hospitality and culture before I even set foot in the country. ANA flew me direct from LAX straight to Tokyo complete with the most attentive flight crew and authentic meals. There was no time to rest once I got there so I’m glad I got to fly in comfort!
I landed in Tokyo at 6pm after a long (12 hour!) but comfortable flight, rented a car, and set off for the small town of Kamakura. After about three hours in the car I arrived at my hostel, a charismatic building with an onsen (Japanese hot spring) downstairs and the most comfortable beds. However, this was just a place to rest my head for the night, there was no time to sit still.
I woke up early in the next morning around 5:30am to catch the sunrise over Yuigahama Beach – the perfect way to wake up in Japan for the first time in 10 months. After spending some time walking around the beach, admiring the sun as it rose over the bay and watching fishing boats set out for the day, I decided it was time to get a move on. I rented a bicycle and paid a visit to the Big Buddha statue near the town center. After that, I stopped by the bamboo forest not too far away and finished my exploration of Kamakura by stopping by the Sasuke Inari Shrine and Ugafuku Shrine (to wash my money in hopes of doubling it, of course).
Next up on the itinerary was Hakone, a place well-known for its onsens, active sulphur vents around Owakudani, and beautiful torii gate on the shores of Lake Ashi. I arrived late in the day and decided it was best to book a stay at a hotel near the base of the Hakone volcano. This would allow me to wake up early again and catch the sunrise over Lake Ashi.
After spending some time exploring the shrine (and its solitude this early in the morning), I moved up to the top of the volcano to explore the geothermal vents a bit. Unfortunately, weather was not on my side and high winds kept me inside but that meant I got to peruse the shopping center at the top and learn a few things in the museum. After taking a quick relaxing dip in a nearby onsen, I set off for my next destination.
The inspiration for this trip lies about two hours South of Hakone in the small town of Kawazu. Kawazu is famous for their early bloom of the Sakura Tree, also known as the cherry blossom. The trees in this region bloom a couple months early every year vs. those in other regions. I high tailed it down to the small town and was pleasantly surprised by the unique Kawazu Nanadaru Loop Bridge along the way. There was a bit of rain upon my arrival but it wouldn’t stop me from walking up and down the streets under the beautiful pink canopies of cherry blossoms while stopping at street vendors enjoying as much food as my stomachs capacity would let me. In that moment, suffering from a severe food coma, I decided to skip the night’s stay in Kawazu and head to the next location to be able to catch the sunrise for a third day in a row
The three-hour drive to Kawaguchi took a bit longer than expected due to inclement weather, but it was still a great experience to get to drive on the wonderfully maintained Japanese roads. Another early morning, and I was off to the Chureito Pagoda to catch first light as it hit the imposing and incredible Mt. Fuji. My last trip to Japan didn’t allow me to catch a glimpse of this unbelievable dormant volcano, but this day it was nothing but clear skies. This was the highlight of my whole trip. A true sight to behold. After spending some time around Lake Kawaguchi and stopping by Aokigahara Forest for a bit of spelunking, it was time to head back to Tokyo and rest my head for the next few days.
Tokyo will always be one of my favorite cities. It blends together so many different experiences and feelings into one incredible vibe. The first night I decided to check out the infamous Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku region and stopped by a karaoke bar on the way home to sing a few songs. I was unable to visit the teamLab art installation during the last trip, and I am so glad I was able to witness this first hand this time. So much so, that I went back-to-back days AND paid a visit to teamLab Planets a few days later, shortly before my departure. Once I finally got my fill of the “borderless” world that the designers behind teamLab created, I knew I had to head back to the Shibuya area to experience the neighborhood’s scramble crossing and eat as much ramen and gyoza as possible. At this point, fattened up on as many noodles as my body would physically let me ingest, I was off to colder climates.
While catching the early bloom cherry blossoms inspired and encouraged me to revisit Japan this time around, my friends and I also decided to go to Niseko and ultimately led me further North to the ski slopes. I’ve heard time and time again how the powder in Japan is incomparable to anywhere else in the world. I was also looking forward to resting my head in one location for five consecutive days rather than being on the move nonstop as I had been from the moment I stepped off the ANA plane. After a two hour bus ride from the airport, I arrived at the house, picked up my rental skis, and was on the slopes in no time. There hadn’t been much new snow fall lately, but the stoke levels were still very high. Five consecutive days of skiing Hanazono Niseko couldn’t have been more fun.
At the front end of this trip I was thinking to myself how I would ever find ways to fill all 16 days of exploring Japan with activities. On my last day I felt like I hadn’t seen nearly as much as I had wanted to. In the end, I did have that return flight home. I didn’t have that feeling of dread, although there was a moment where I didn’t want to get off the plane because of the unparalleled in-flight experience I had on ANA. Rather, I had a feeling of both gratitude and exhilaration – for the places that I have yet to discover, the people I will meet along the way, and the cultures of those that I have yet to experience. I guess I just have to return sooner rather than later to continue my exploration of Japan – and it will no doubt start, and end, on an ANA flight.