Japow – From the Mountains to the Temples and Everything in Between

Japan is rich with culture and incredible food and experiences, and after spending over a month exploring almost the whole circumference, I could honestly write a blog for each day we spent there, which is probably what has stopped me from catching up on writing about it. For sake of a good enough job finished, I’ve decided to consolidate all the stories into a few posts, probably leaving out lots of good stories and spots to check out, but enough to inspire a trip back.

Japan was one of the most wonderful and most difficult places we traveled around. The difficulty comes from both outrunning covid closures in February 2020, and also that we opted to rent a car rather than take the bullet train. Japan is not optimized for visitors in cars, but I will say every single road side food stop, whether from a gas station or a hole in the wall restaurant tucked in the mountains, was some of the best food I have ever had. So though we got lost, paid for many unexpected tolls while our car shouted at us in Japanese, and couldn’t spontaneously pull over and access outdoor areas that looked neat, we certainly found a way to enjoy ourselves along the journey.

Tokyo to Hakuba to Nozawa Onsen

Word of advice – whenever you fly to a new country, give yourself a few days in the main city to get settled. In our excited to get to the pow, we decided one night in Tokyo was plenty and we would get our rental car and head to the mountains. Well turns out we had to have a bunch of paperwork to get a rental in Japan, which took us 3 days to get, a taxi ride and late night arrival to our accommodation in Hakuba, another taxi ride, multiple train rides, a long walk to find a printer, trying desperately to use our electronic translator and hand gestures, and finally getting a car all while very jet-lagged.

Other than the faff of getting some wheels, we absolutely loved our little airbnb in Omachi – Taira and had our own private onsen in the bathroom. It was my first time sleeping on mats on the ground, but it was pretty comfy and my jet lag would’ve had me sleeping on concrete happily. The private onsen was magical, and anytime we were home you could find me in there. But the real reason we came to Japan was in search of the powder that had been eluding us for most of our travels, and might I say we were not disappointed.

Framily from Canada and Australia also happened to be in Nozawa Onsen, and since we didn’t know when we would get to see friends and family again, we made the unplanned trek out and ended up with one of the most epic powder days of my life. I’m so glad we ventured their way for a couple days, because little did we know it was the last time we would be seeing any of them for 18+ months.

Nikko-toshogu Shrine & Meeting my Niece Clara for the First Time in Utsunomiya

My big brother James also lives in Japan with his wife and new daughter, so obviously a trip up north to Utsunomiya was in order. While we waited for him to get off work we decided to wander the Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple and around the grounds of the Nikko Shrines until they arrived with baby in tow.

Many hugs and baby cuddles later, we headed to lunch at Bar de Nikko and had a delicious breakfast. An odd combo at first, turned now meal I dream about often, was a special omelet over rice with two different unnamed sauces. It looks like a dinner meal, but honestly I’d eat this any time of day.

Satiated from our brunch, we went for a wander around Nikko-Shi Chugushi. Our first stop was Kegon Falls. The lighting was moody, and we embraced the winter day with a couple family shots. Continuing our adventures, we walked through town, looked at beautiful art in shops, and finished up along the Chuzenji lakeside, just in time for golden hour. We wrapped up the perfect day with a stop at a local sushi restaurant, and if you know me I would eat sushi for every meal if I could. My sister-in-law helped us by translating the menu and ordering for us. I felt very lucky to have a Japanese guide us for a couple days, it opened up the country in fun new ways.

Our final few days in Utsonomiya were spent in such good company, that I didn’t actually end up with any photos except one print out of a beautiful night out with James and his friends, and a picture of a Gyoza sign.

At this point in our travels we had been “on the road” for 4 months through parts of Europe and Japan, and for those 4 long months we couldn’t find any Mexican food. As an american this is a very long time to go without Mexican food. But as luck would have it, one of James’ local friends was just about to shut down her cantina (f-u covid), and was having a closing party with friends the night we were in town.

Baked and made from scratch, down to the chips and the tortillas, it was hands down the best Mexican food I have ever had. We partied the night away with margaritas, games, and lots of laughter and ended the night by immortalizing the fun in one single photo that I’ve now carried with me through Vietnam, all over the islands of Aotearoa, back home to the US and through multiple states. It is one well-traveled photo.

Gyoza was the last stop we made, as Utsunomiya is known as “the town of dumplings” and famous all over Japan, is the Utsunomiya gyoza. They host a gyoza festival, or did before covid, and it truly did not disappoint. I’m trying to get better about being that person who takes pictures of my food before I eat it, but was too hungry at the time to care, so I took one single picture of their cool sign instead.

Departing Utsunomiya, we had our eyes set on our next destination to Nagano, more specifically to the snow monkeys of the Jigokudani park.