Japan trip: First evening in Sapporo under the snow

Upon arrival at Royton Sapporo, we quickly unpacked and got out to find decent gloves for my daughter. We also wished to experience our first evening in Sapporo under the snow.

After going to Odori, we ended searching for an eating place in the central arcade gallery of Tanukikoji.

Ramen as first meal in Hokkaido

Food has (quite rightfully) a great reputation in Hokkaido. Mitchy thus took us on a wild goose chase for the perfect ramen. The first place we tried to find based on Google was closed. In the end, Mitchy found a place, namely, a ramen place where you have to make your order and pay… via a vending machine! They also have a website.

Ramen Vending machine
Ramen vending machine

Despite the quirkiness of the ordering system, the ramen were absolutely delicious! The presentation too, true to Japanese tradition, was without fail.

Hokkaido ramans
Hokkaido Ramen

The deliciousness of the ramen made me understand why Hokkaido is so reputed for them. I particularly recommend the pork bone soup version!

As to Mitchy, she was literally in ecstasy before the ramens:

Mitchy in extasy
Mitchy in extasy before Hokkaido ramens

After our meal, we took a walk in the gallery where the restaurant was located, noting the stuffed bear on display (bears are quite common in Hokkaido, being a pretty wild island).

Bear in Tanukikoji
A real life-size stuffed bear in the Tanukikoji gallery in Sapporo.

Winter lighting in Sapporo

The culmination of the visit was probably the winter lights of Sapporo. In the thick snow, the winter lights took a magical turn.

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Our daughter got so overexcited, that she kept playing and digging in the snow until she was totally exhausted. We then had to move back to Royton, trudging across the heavy snow on the sidewalks. Being cold, the whole family was on the lookout for toilets. Fortunately, with regards to the availability of toilets, about every 7/11 has one available for customers, so we were not caught out in the open. While cold (around -1°C), the weather was pleasant and quite enjoyable as it was everyone’s first encounter with snow after several years.

As a side note, Sapporo city organized a photo shoot gallery, where you could have your picture taken then framed for a small amount, or made available in digital  manner for  free. But this was only the first day of our trip…  The following day was the Japanese emperor’s birthday, and it was the day where we were going to the mountain resort of Tomamu to enjoy some snow fun.

How to get there?

For the ramen restaurant, it is a bit difficult to find, as the website is in Japanese. Nevertheless, I marked the address for you on this map:

 

The Sapporo winter lights (also called “Sapporo White Illumination“) are all along Odori park, culminating with the TV tower. Obviously, the illuminations start only on the 25th of November. Nevertheless, I marked the Odori park on this map, so you can refer to if you are visiting Sapporo for the first time.

From Tokyo to Hokkaido

In an earlier post, I talked about snow fun in Tomamu. Well, before getting to Tomamu, we had to fly from Tokyo to Hokkaido. Obviously, we were flying on Japan Airlines. The plane to Hokkaido was another B777.

Haneda airport

As much as international airports are perfectly organized, domestic airports can look a bit more tentative in Japan. When we tried to rebook my flight to be on the same plane as my wife and daughter, it was an incredible hassle with JAL at their domestic terminal. After paying a penalty fee (!) for the rebooking, we managed however to board the plane. That is where I managed to take the perfect shot in an airport. In terms of composition, all the elements were aligned.

Haneda airport
Haneda airport domestic terminal seen from a B777-300.

The one qualm about Haneda is that shops and eating places are far and few in between. In a way, Haneda is rather spartan, compared to Narita.

Japan Airlines connection to Hokkaido

While the staff are very kind and while the plane was impeccable, there was no screen onboard the B777. All they gave you was a headset to listen to some music.

No screen
No screen on the seat of B777 to Sapporo.

Thankfully, the flight is short, otherwise it might have been rather tedious.

You also have the occasion upon takeoff to see Mount Fuji in the distance (but you must sit down on the left side). A grandiose sight but I failed to take a picture (with an Iphone, you would see very little anyway). The industrial facilities of Tokyo Bay, which you can see upon takeoff are worth a shot, nevertheless.

Tokyo Bay
Tokyo Bay upon takeoff from Haneda airport

My family and me caught some quick shuteye in the plane.

napping in the plane
Mitchy with pillow

First glimpse of snow in Hokkaido

When initiating descent in Hokkaido, you can catch your first glimpse of snow on Hokkaido.

First glimpse of snow over Hokkaido
First glimpse of snow over Hokkaido on approach to Chitose airport

The landing was uneventful, just as the takeoff. Collection of our luggage was quick as I am a gold member of the OneWorld alliance. Once outside, we had to find a way of getting to our hotel, which was the Royton Sapporo. Fortunately, the airport has a limousine bus which visits all the main hotels in Sapporo. The price is a modest 1030 JPY per head. Please do check on your own flight if you are arriving to Chitose at the international terminal (we flew in through the domestic terminal). Unfortunately, the Royton is truly the very last hotel on this shuttle bus, so it takes around 1 hr to 1h 1/2. The roads were covered with snow, which made the airport transfer even more lovely. When departing, instead, the snow complicated everything, as the snowstorm buffeting Sapporo made it impossible to get to the airport on time with the airport limousine bus.

Royton Sapporo

Originally, we had been hesitating on whether to stay in Jozankei, which is a resort hotel near Niseko. The cost convinced us to abstain and we opted to be based in Sapporo without too many transfers around. Royton Sapporo was ideal as it is centrally located (although a bit far from the train station.

The hotel itself is quite crowded around new year and christmas, but still is a lovely place to pass the night. Upon arrival in our bedroom, I wasted no time in taking  a pic of our alter ego from LINE friends in front of the gorgeous snowy view.

Royton Sapporo with Cony, Brown and Sally
Cony, Brown and Sally at Royton Sapporo

This was the place where we were going to stay for the next few days, exploring Tomamu and Sapporo itself.

Japan: snow fun in Tomamu

One of the highlights of our trip to Japan in December 2017 has been the day where we traveled to Tomamu. Tomamu is a ski station situated inland on the island of Hokkaido, about one hour by train from Sapporo. The village has many ski resorts and winter sport stations, so it was the occasion to take our daughter to enjoy her first sledding and snow experience.

 

Taking the train to Tomamu

The train to Tomamu leaves from Sapporo main railway station, and it is an understatement to say that the walk to the train station was quite… icy! Snow covered the streets and in most parts had frozen up.

Sapporo and crest of the Emperor
The official buildings bore the crest of the Emperor as it was his birthday.

 

The cost of a return ticket was of about 27,000 JPY for a reserved seat for two adults and one kid. If you don’t buy a reserved seat, you end up having to pay the controller with an amount almost double the cost of a ticket.

The train trip is pretty easy and fun, and comfortable.

Train in outskirts of Sapporo

The difficulty of finding transportation in Tomamu

If you are not staying at one of the ski resorts of Tomamu, hitching a ride to the place can be quite a challenge. There are strictly no taxis or other transportation at the station, and all you have are the buses of the resorts. This being said, the drivers are quite nice and they offered us a ride to the winter sports station.

In fact, nobody checks who boards the buses upon arrival in Tomamu, as they only care of picking your luggage. Of course, the station stays closed day and night. So, no way to go around, unless you have your own transportation. As a consequence (and as you might expect), food prices are quite expensive both, at the resort and at the local restaurants. If on a budget, it is best to come from Sapporo by train, enjoy the activities and go back at night.

GAO Snow Academy

We went straight to the GAO snow academy, which is a lovely place for children. Not only do they have lessons for learning how to ski, but also they provide quite a number of services, such as snowmobile outings, sled rental, etc. We rented a sled and took our daughter out for the fun.

 

Sled in Tomamu
My daughter and me ready to sled

The fun part was to fly the drone in that lovely setting.

Of course, big kids enjoyed too sledding…

Mitch Sledding
Mitch sledding

The tiring part was probably having to pull the sled back up the hill.

 

Sledding in Tomamu
Playing with a sled in Tomamu

Maria-Sophia had a lot of fun building her snowman… Which she, of course, named “Olaf” according to the character of “Frozen”. Let us not even talk about the number of times she rolled herself in the snow. I guess snow always conserves its magical nature for kids.

Maria-Sophia's snowman
Maria-Sophia’s snowman

Tomamu, of course, has a lot of the markings of a mountain ski station… Like lovely isolated fir trees, making for excellent photographic subjects.

 

Fir trees in Tomamu
The lovely fir trees in Tomamu

The mountain light

The best moment was probably when the sun broke the clouds to illuminate a valley in Tomamu. I just had the time to grab a few shots of the marvelous light.

Angel light in Tomamu
Angel light over the Tomamu mountains

Tomamu’s ice village

As night fell on Tomamu, we headed to another very reputed winter attraction of Tomamu. The ice village of Tomamu, which is worldwide reknown is only open from 7PM. Normally, entry is free for anybody who is residing at one of the Tomamu resorts. For others,  you have to pay a moderate entrance fee, about 5 K JPY.

It is obviously totally man-made and artificial, but it is also a dreamlike vision seeing this igloo village nestled in the middle of the mountains at night.

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You can have warm drinks inside the individual igloos, or you can admire ikebana flower decorations in some of these igloos. A lot of people also queued to slide down to the ice village on an ice slide.

Returning to Sapporo

After visiting the ice village, came the time of going back to Sapporo. I mentioned earlier that Tomamu station was closed most of the time… This means that the station is basically abandoned and short of a stinky waiting room, there is nowhere to shelter from the cold.

Mitch, who was already tired thus buried her nose in her scarf while waiting in the room… And Maria-Sophia and me, we continued throwing snowballs at each other (although, by that time, my daughter was running on fumes, as the day had taken its toll).

Waiting room of Tomamu
The dismal waiting room of Tomamu train station

Nevertheless, all in all, Tomamu is really one of the best winter sports station in the world. The Japanese spirit and the availability of great facilities for families and kids, makes it truly a lovely place to visit. The natural beauty of the mountains adds to the great feeling.

 

Japan: a visit to Sensoji shrine

When you visit Tokyo, a must visit if you are in the area of Asakusa is certainly Sensoji, the oldest shrine of the city. A visit to Sensoji shrine is not only the occasion of watching Japanese and their beliefs which intricates elements of Shintoism along with Buddhism. It is also the occasion of watching numerous ladies and men dressed up in elaborate ceremony kimonos.

A very old shrine

Sensoji (浅草寺)is so called because it is another way to read the character for “Asakusa”, where the temple is located. I mentioned earlier that Sensoji was the oldest temple in Tokyo, and its establishment dates back to 645 AD. Obviously, the current temple looks too new to still be the original temple. All the more as the area was destroyed in the WWII bombardments.

Despite the current relative “freshness” of the shrine building, Sensoji still carries a special weight in the heart of the Tokyo dwellers. Before entering the temple grounds themselves, there is a very famous shopping street, Nakamise street, mainly targeted to tourists, but still very interesting for visitors. Originally, the street appeared when traders obtained the permission to set up shops in the street leading to the shrine, several centuries ago. While the shops may have been chased away from time to time, and were destroyed to the ground in WWII, today they are back into their prime.

Nakamise street
The incredible vibe of Nakamise street, near Sensoji

Things to buy in Nakamise street

Since you are already there, you may want to buy some souvenirs. It might be the occasion to buy some Geta, those traditional Japanese wooden sandals (very comfortable, by the way).

There are shops like the below shop, but while expensive on the main street, you find some interesting deals either in made to order geta or generally sized geta in side streets.

Geta shop
A geta shop in Nakamise street

I got my own geta from a side street with a very lovely couple. They fit well, and are just as comfortable as the Berkemann slides I habitually wear too.

My Japanese geta
The pair of Geta I bought in Japan. Stylish and easy to wear.

There are plenty of sites explaining how to wear geta, but the general idea is that they should be slightly smaller than your foot. That way, your feet hangs out a little bit.

Besides geta, the side streets also display some lovely fans as these hand painted ones (a bargain at 1,100 JPY).

Hand-painted fans
Hand painted fans near Nakamise street

The gate to the shrine

The gate to the shrine itself is painted in tones to remind of thunder. This is logical, as it is called Kaminarimon (雷門, “Thunder Gate).

Kaminarimon
The Kaminarimon gate of Sensoji

It is nearby that I asked the two lovely Japanese girls if I could take their picture in kimono and they kindly agreed.

Japanese girls in Kimono
Nihonjin girls in Kimono

As much as possible, it is recommended to ask the permission of people to take their picture, as generally, it is frowned on taking pictures even in a public space. A smile and a few words in Japanese help a lot in that respect.

It must be said that shrines and temples are often places used for photoshoots of kimonos. Like this group where they were focusing on the elaborate obis (the “belt”) of these furisode. A furisode is a ceremony kimono worn by unmarried young girls and is typically recognizable by the long floating sleeves.

Photoshoot of kimonos
A photo shoot of kimonos focusing on the elaborated obis.

When shooting your picture, if you know some Japanese, it will allow you to distinguish between the “real” Japanese in kimono and those tourists who wear kimonos to have photo sessions.

For example, the two young ladies below were from Hong Kong (!) and immediately corrected me when I asked if I could take their picture. They kindly agreed nevertheless to have their picture taken.

HK tourist in kimono
A Hong Kong tourist posing in Kimono

The shrine

The meaning of Sensoji probably escapes me a bit, but from inside the shrine itself, you can have a nice view on the bustle in the courtyard as well as on the Kaminarimon .

View from inside of Sensoji
A view from the inside of Sensoji

Later, as we went back, our daughter, Maria-Sophia fell in love with the gacha machines. She was too cute, asking to buy one of those little balls with premiums inside.

Little girl and gacha machine
When a little girl falls in love with a gacha machine

In short, either for shopping or for visiting the shrine, Sensoji is absolutely the place to go if you come to Tokyo.

Nakamise street another angle
Nakamise street and the bustling activity

Japan: Shibuya crossing

Shibuya crossing
The crossing as the crowd launches for the famed crossing…

A major place to visit upon any visit to Japan is the Shibuya crossing. Popularized and made iconic by countless photographers and/or instagram posts, the Shibuya crossing is famous for the sheer amount of people crossing the streets at any time during the day.

Hachiko

Shibuya crossing is also near to the famous Hachiko statue. Hachiko is that akita dog that waited for its master every day at this station, even for ten years after his master died. Japanese were so touched by this faithfulness of a dog to his master, that they immortalized it under the form of a statue that now waits everyday outside the station.

I will confess not having shot that picture, as there were too many tourists queuing and competing to have their picture take besides the statue.

Shibuya train station

Shibuya train station is a very vibrant place, being a real hub and a reputed meeting place. Among the numerous animations, got the surprise of seeing some young Japanese girls offering “free hugs” in Tokyo! In this case, Rino and Makiko, the two girls on this picture.

 

Rino and Makiko offer free hugs.
Rino and Makiko offer free hugs to people outside Shibuya train station

Around the station, you can also see various other scenes of animation or a bit eccentric characters. When shooting street photography and individuals, you may want to take advantage of the subway station and its natural reflection of sunlight. It allows to get a perfectly lit subject, as on this picture.

 

Shibuya crossing
The subway windows offer a natural reflectors for shots of people at certain times of the year (winter).

The crossing

The crossing can be shot from different angles, but the most known is probably from the Starbucks coffee shop that overlooks the crossing. The drama of the popularity of this place is that every day, you will have dozens of tourists occupying the seats and taking countless hours to record or shoot the scene.

Bike on Shibuya crossing
A bike takes off as people start crossing Shibuya

Here is an idea of what the crossing looks like in video:

Side scenes: Mario Kart

Being in Shibuya, it means also that it is one of the places visited by the Mario Kart drivers (an encounter by chance, actually). There is a Mario Kart attraction, whereby you can drive karts in the streets of Tokyo (only if you have a valid international driving permit).

Mario Kart in Shibuya
The Mario Kart participants at a red light in Shibuya

The interesting part of shooting these carts is to try and get a panned shot. This allows to suggest speed and gives a pretty dynamic picture. In this case, the driver was wearing a striped costume which aligned with the stripes of the zebra crossing.

Mario Kart at Shibuya Crossing
A mario kart rider roars off at Shibuya crossing

When walking a bit further on one of the alleys going away from Shibuya, I managed to capture an Autumn scene. While not as iconic as Shibuya crossing this shot still translates the bustle of the capital and the winter feeling.

Tokyo crossing
A crossing, not far from Shibuya illuminated by the warm winter light.

The key in travel photography is not to limit yourself to icons. Looking further away, you may find hidden gems even if unnoticeable at first sight.

Ueno Park in Tokyo: from blooming Sakura to red maple leaves

On day three of my stay in Japan, I headed to Ueno park. To be completely honest, I had been there the day before, where I managed to shoot already some pics. The main highlight of the day was finding a cherry tree starting to bloom in the middle of December. The whole Ueno park offers a study in contrast ranging from blooming sakura to red maple leaves.

Climatic change?

The habitual season for cherry blossoms is around April to May. Here, we are at the beginning of winter and seeing cherry blossoms flower in December is pretty unusual to say the least. It must be also said that winter has been pretty mild so far in Tokyo. It should also be pointed out that sakuras are forecasted to be blooming as early as 15th of January in Okinawa, for example.

At any rate, the sakuras attracted a lot of tourists who were visiting Ueno park. Some were respectful, others pulling down the branches to make sure they were in the picture with them.

Photographically, shooting sakuras in front of a local shrine was the perfect way to suggest Japan and all its loveliness.

Sakuras blooming in Ueno park.
The blooming sakuras in front of a shrine in Ueno park

Contrast with Autumn colors

The real interest of seeing sakuras blooming was when you contrasted that to the fiery red maple leaves seen further in the Ueno zoo park.

If you are a photographer who is not living in a tropical country, then you know that the razing winter sun provides light of an exceptional quality and this is true again in this case. The razing light showcase the delicate texture of the leaves in this picture.

At the same time, Japan is unique in providing you both the colors of autumn and the loveliness of spring. Where else can you have blooming flowers by the side of autumn leaves?

Spring and Autumn contrast
Contrast between blooming flowers and autumn leaves in the sunset

Winter light is ideal for portraits

At the same time, winter light is perfect for portraits, as the light is soft and gives a special glow on faces. Using shadows, I managed to take an interesting portrait of my daughter among the toris of Ueno Park.

Maria-Sophia in winter light among toris
I shot Maria-Sophia among the Tori in Ueno park using the delicate winter light to shine on her face

Further, on the way to Ueno zoo, you can find lovely stone gates which offer an interesting pattern shot.

Stone gates in Ueno park
Stone gates in Ueno park

Ueno park: a place to visit in Tokyo

Tokyo has many parks, but Ueno park has the peculiarity of presenting both, the traditional Japanese characters with a local shrine and some lovely and interesting contrasts in seasonal pictures.

Do not miss the local shrine either! Called Kaneji, it is interesting for the lovely sunset light in the evening.

Kaneji temple in sunset
Kaneji temple in sunset

The most interesting part is probably their selling lucky charms with a “hello kitty”.

HK charms
Interesting charm for safe delivery with a Hello Kitty…

In short, Ueno park is a lovely subject for pictures. If you are in Tokyo, don’t miss visiting it!

How to get there?

Of course, the answer depends from where you are. But the safe bet is to get down at Ueno metro station which you can reach with either the Hibiya or the Ginza lines.

Japan Airlines Hong Kong to Haneda: pure refinement

After Korea, the next step was, obviously, Japan. And to go to Japan, I caught a Japan Airlines flight, which although I flew economy was pure refinement.

It all starts at a lounge

The best way to start a travel is doubtless in the business class lounge. Even though I was not flying business, Finnair’s gold level membership allowed me to use the lounge as well as my wife and child (it must be remarked that unlike other Oneworld airlines, Finnair does allow child guests for the lounge + one adult guest).

Qantas lounge
Enjoying a light meal before the flight

The lounge enabled us to await peacefully the time for the flight (we escaped to the huge queue for boarding by arriving early enough).

As the flight time was nearing we went to the gate. The first thing I noted was the pressing invitation by the Japan Airlines staff by loudspeakers to board quickly and to attach seat belts upon boarding. Nothing too unusual there… except that they invited you also to use the restroom before boarding! Attention to detail or maniac obsession with detail, a first sign of the Japanese spirit.

Spacious plane

On the flights HKG to Haneda, Japan Airlines uses Boeings 777 the cabin of which has been redesigned to improve amenities and comfort.

JAL 26 flight
The JAL 26 flight berthed at gate 29 in Hong Kong airport

Seat room and leg space was quite generous, video screen was the biggest I have seen since I started flying, and everything breathes refinement and comfort. I was flying one of the recently redesigned B777 of Japan Airlines, according to the “Sky Next” concept, with Recaro seats and wifi on board. The flight attendants too, were smiling and excessively polite.

JAL Boeing 777
An idea of the interior cabin of a JAL Boeing 777

Takeoff, was quite uneventful, except the delays upon takeoff because of the queue of planes… Afternoon can be quite busy with a number of flights taking off for Japan at the same time.

Airplane queues HKG
Planes queuing for takeoff at HKG airport behind JAL 26

Several planes took off at the same time.

ANA flight taking off
A (supposedly) B777 of ANA taking off from HKG airport

The fun part was probably seeing the very plane with which I flew to Korea taking off at the same time:

A330 Asiana to Seoul
The A330 of Asiana taking off from HKG to INH

As to the takeoff itself, it was the occasion of shooting a nice video of the HKG airport.

Takeoff of JAL 26

A very Japanese menu

Once in flight, the food service started. A very Japanese menu (with no options) serving rice with eggs and some meat. Presentation was impeccable.

Meal tray JAL
Meal tray of JAL

The food was tasty too, which is not astonishing for an afficionado of Japanese food.

Little additional detail: they serve also miso soup in cardboard glasses, but as you can see, the tray is already crowded by then.

Entertainement

Besides the comfort of the seats with large legroom, the entertainment part was also quite agreeable with large screens and a selection of the most recent movies on the market. I tried their Kasparov chess game, but found it a bit wanting (maybe because it was not that difficult – yet I only managed a quick pat). Unfortunately, i was so tired that I dozed off in middle of the movie that followed.

Upon arrival in Japan, we experienced one of the smoothest landings ever (JAL pilots have a soft touch when landing, it would seem). And so, we were arrived in Japan, finally!

Transfer

Upon arrival in Haneda, we opted for ease and chose to request the transfer service provided by Klook from Haneda. A bit pricey at 9,500 JPY, but easy, as the provider contacts you via Whatsapp and directs you to the driver. The drive was ok, even though the driver did not understand english but spoke only Japanese and Chinese.

First encounter with Japan in France: the kimono musician in Paris

My first encounter with Japan actually happened in… France! Indeed, as a teenager, I had just started photography with my Canon EOS 600, at the times of the film camera (around 1990). It is where I saw this young kimono musician playing in the gardens of Tuilleries (near the Louvre).

The kimono musician

This young lady was playing the traditional instrument called “koto”, obviously busking, probably to pay for her studies. In a very Japanese attempt at perfectionism, she even wore a kimono while playing in the hot summer sun.

At the time, the police was quite strict on buskers and vendors in the garden, but yet, they tolerated this lady, probably because of the exquisite poetry of this scene.

Looking back at this scene, shot before the social medias became a pest and before people would start posting all about Japan or their trips, I guess this sparked my interest for Japanese culture and its refinement.

I was still a pretty shy guy at the time, so one regret I have today is not having spoken to the young lady. But photography can open worlds to you.

The Koto

In an interesting cultural twist (I believe I mentioned that this blog was also about showing cultural interactions), the Koto originally comes from China, where it was called guzheng (古箏) and it was imported to Japan around the VIIth century AD.

Originally reserved to the imperial court, playing Koto is a sign of aristocracy. However, few are the young Japanese ladies who are still capable of playing the instrument with some degree of proficiency. As such, this young lady was probably placing herself among the most refined of her society. Why did she have to play the instrument for busking? An interesting question to which we may never have an answer.

If you are looking for more information about the Koto, you may visit this site: Musique traditionnelle japonaise (French).