The Decision to go to Japan
Spring has sprung, bike to work week is now done and we are seven months away from the next ski season. It is time to start thinking about the next big trip. Last year about this time B was lamenting the fact that he was going to turn 50 and wanted to spend his birthday on a slope somewhere. Since B’s b-day is in August, the only place to go would be South America or New Zealand. After researching and delaying long enough, the plane tickets were so expensive that it looked like it was not going to happen, B was getting somewhat frustrated. At this point b, dealing with a grumpy spouse quickly made the suggestion, “what about Japan? They have skiing in Japan!” After more research we discovered that we could get plane tickets from Phoenix to Narita, Japan with mileage points leaving on Christmas Day and returning 18 days later. So having no other plan but to fly to Narita we reserved our seats, before either of us had leave from work to take any vacation time. We had made a commitment.
Do we really want to do a Tour?
Now we had to figure out where we were going to go, we knew that we were going skiing but after that? Who knew! Neither one of us had ever been to Japan and were quite clueless as to what to expect, where to go and what to do. b spent some time looking around and found a tour company out of Australia called Whiteroom Tours, more on these guys in part 2. She initially thought that the 14 day tour around Hokkaido would be what we wanted. Since we usually don’t do tours and do enjoy the freedom to wander without an itinerary, we settled on the 10 day Central Hokkaido tour. This gave us some time after the tour to explore some other parts of Hokkaido and Honshu. We felt that after the tour we would be familiar enough with the country and culture that we could explore later without making too many mistakes.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
B spent sometime reading up on the rules for baggage for US Airways and JAL. Flying out of the US is actually not so bad the weight limit is per bag. Flying in a lot of other countries the limit 23kg(50lbs) per person! Since our flights were on multiple airlines, we flew from Phoenix to San Diego on US West, San Diego to Narita on JAL and Narita to Sapporo on All Nippon Airlines(ANA), and our bags were only checked from Phoenix to Narita. We had to worry about the weight limit on the ANA flight to Sapporo.
The Gear Lists, not including the shells, mid layers, base layers and gloves.
Note: Some of the links point to more modern versions of what we have.
So we flew with one Thule ski bag, two backpacks(listed above), one Gregory Alpaca duffle, one Metolius crag bag, an Osprey Shuttle 80L and Meridian 60L wheeled gear haulers. During the flights to Japan, the only gear that we checked was the ski bag with just the skis, poles, probes, skins, and shovels. Ski boots, beacons, hard shells and anything else that would be hard to replace and hard to rent, went with us into the cabin of the airplane. Which also cut down on the weight of the checked bags so we made it under the weight limit for ANA… just barely!
We also planned to travel around the country a bit after the tour so we looked into Japan Rail Passes. This ended up being a very good deal for us as we were planning to travel from Niseko to Nagano and then from Nagano to Tokyo. The cost of the 7 day rail pass we got ended up being cheaper than purchasing the trips separately. Roller bags are a must when traveling on the trains. While the larger train stations usually have elevators to get to the platforms, the little small stations don’t and you spend a lot of time lugging baggage upstairs over the track and back down to switch platforms.
Buses and Taxis are in great abundance in Japan. Most of the hotels, Minshuku(Japanese Bed and Breakfast), and Ryokan(traditional Japanese Inn) provide some sort of transportation to and from a train stations. In our case, we obviously clueless enough that some train attendants call ahead and arrange a taxi for us. One thing to be aware of with the taxis is that when you are traveling with ski gear, they will charge you extra for the skis and snowboards.
There are a lot of useful apps out there to help you plan your travels, we found that Rome2Rio was incredible useful for planning the routes and finding places to stay and Hyperdia for getting the latest up to date Japanese Rail train schedules.
Arriving in Japan
We flew US Airlines from Phoenix to San Diego, JAL from San Diego to Narita for the first legs of the journey. The way we organized the flights was a little inconvenient and while we could have flow on to Sapporo, we would have had to change airports from Narita to Haneda. So we decided to spend the night in a hotel just outside of the airport at the Narita View Hotel. Easy to get to with a bus that services both the View hotel and the Crowne Plaza not too far away. Tiny tiny rooms and a little worn but very comfortable and especially after the 15 hours in transit from Phoenix, a perfect place to stop and collect ourselves. The hotel was very interesting, it appears to have been built in the 60s and had not been updated since. The room we had looked a bit art deco. It was the one place we saw a fried food vending machine!
The first of many vending machines, the blue marker under the drink is the cost and means that it is served cold a red one would mean that the drink is hot.
Making our way from Narita to Furano.
We grabbed the hotel bus the next morning back to the airport and caught out flight from Narita to Sapporo. It did take us a little bit to find the domestic checkin for ANA. It was in the lower level of the Narita airport and we, of course, were dazed, confused, and jet lagged tourist and were looking around at the international checkin before we finally asked where to go and directed down to the first level. The flight to Sapporo was a quick short hop and got us there in plenty of time to check in for the bus ride to Furano.
All of our gear piled into one place, while checking in at the bus line.
The tour company booked us on the Resort Liner Hokkaido Access Network to transport us from Sapporo to Furano. When we checked in we were told to go wait in the orange chairs across from the train station until 2pm. This worked out well for us since we had Japan Rail passes that needed to get validated for the rest of the trip after the tour. Getting the validation in Sapporo would allow us to take the train from Furano to Niseko and then on to Nagano.
Sitting across from the Train Station at the New Chitose Airport waiting for the bus.
Once we got our rail passes validated and sat down at the chairs, it was a little disconcerting as there was no signs or anything that pointed to the resort liner boarding. B checked outside at the parking lot and really did not see anything that was the Bus loading zone for that particular company. There was really no need to worry, promptly at 2pm a group of guides dress in white jackets showed up by the chairs and started shouting and holding up signs for four different destinations. Furano was one so we got in line along with a New Zealander named Dave, who we were soon discovered was going to be one of our guides.
The resort bus loaded us up and took us from Sapporo to Furano. The North Country Inn was the first real stop in Furano, there was a rest room break about half way between the airport and the inn. Paul Ellis, the founder of Whiteroom tours and head guide met us at the door.
Coming Soon….Part 2 – The Skiing and Ski Resorts.