After missing out on two opportunities to visit Japan, it did not cross my mind that I would get another chance to do so.
Some may call it third time lucky. But to me, I always hold to the belief that if something is destined to be yours, it will land on your lap – eventually.
The icing on the cake is that I will be going there for about a week, in the midst of a full blown winter, with heavy snowfall.
The thought of seeing snow for the first time left me jumping in excitement.
To prepare for the trip, I bought a waterproof down jacket, long johns, thick nylon pants, heat packs, lip balm, winter face mask, ski gloves, wool socks, muffler scarf, a knitted hat and a pair of winter shoes. It cost a bomb but in order to keep my skinny body warm from the extreme and freezing weather (the weather was expected to be between 0°C and -6°C!), I guess it’s money well spent.
Our tour leader from Apple Vacations, which hosted the trip, was Susan Tan. Her boss and the travel company’s co-founder, Datuk Seri Koh Yock Heng, was part of the entourage.
Koh, fondly known as Kohsan, has a deep admiration for the Japanese people and their culture, having studied and lived there for several years. He felt that the time was right to introduce a new Japan tour package for travellers.
“When we talk about Japan, people tend to visit cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Hokkaido and Nagoya. There is so much potential in other parts and Tohoku is one good example,” said Kohsan, who is also the group managing director of Apple Vacations.
Tohoku is on Honshu island, the largest island in Japan. This remote region consists of six prefectures and has a population of over nine million people. The place is known for its harsh climate.
Due to its geographical location, we had to travel on land for quite a bit to get there. From Narita International Airport in Tokyo, we took a limited express train to the Tokyo Station in the city.
There we boarded a Komachi, a high-speed shinkansen (bullet train) service between Tokyo and Akita, operated by the East Japan Railway Company.
After about two hours, we alighted at the Sendai station and was welcomed by Toyoko Kurosaki of the Japan National Tourism Organisation (co-hosts of the trip), who speaks fluent Mandarin. She told us that lunch – a bowl of warm noodles, tempura and some side dishes – was already waiting for us.
After lunch, we hopped back on the bus to head to the fluffiest place on Earth, Zao Fox Village, Japan’s largest fox-themed zoo.
More than 100 foxes, including the kita kitsune or ezo red fox, roam freely in a garden surrounded by nature – truly a sight to marvel. We took plenty of pictures and fed some of these carnivorous mammals on an elevated platform.
I spotted a brownish fox sipping on ice cold water. I thought this was truly insane as my hands were already numb from the cold, yet this fox was able to drink iced water!
I was told that during spring, a “hug a baby fox” experience would be available for visitors. If my kids were with me, they would definitely try to hug these fluffy beings.
For dinner, we were served grilled beef tongue. I am not a fan of beef, and the thought of eating its internal organs bothered me. But, I gave it a try, albeit reluctantly, and discovered just how tasty it was. I would say that it tastes “just like chicken”, except it’s a lot tender and more flavourful.
In the Sendai region of Tohoku, this is a famous and much sought-after dish by locals.
Early the next day, I got dressed in five layers of clothing; I was all ready to see, smell, touch and even taste snow for the first time.
We went to the mountainous Yamagata prefecture that faces the Sea of Japan. Alas, it snowed so heavily at the Zao Ropeway that the cable car operations were suspended indefinitely. The Juhyo (Snow Monsters) viewing, which was on our itinerary, had to be cancelled.
The Juhyo forest, created by trees covered with snow and ice, is a meteorological phenomenon that’s unique to the Zao mountain range. These countless “monsters” are a natural wonder and best represent the winter there.
It was a pity we couldn’t experience this but for me, the sight of heavy snowfall made up for the disappointment. We practically threw ourselves to the ground, rolling around and enjoying every moment of it!
For lunch, it’s more beef – this time, the Yonezawa wagyu which Yamagata is popular for. The Yonezawa beef is right up there on the list of top wagyu range in Japan, alongside the Matsusaka and Kobe beef. The best thing about the lunch (apart from the wagyu itself) was that we got to grill the meat ourselves.
After our meal we visited the Ginzan Onsen, one of the most popular onsen towns in Japan. It is known for its nostalgic vibe during winter and its beautiful hiking trails and waterfall during more temperate weather.
Onsen, or a hot spring bath, is a must try in Yamagata. It was a bit of a culture shock for me, though, as one must fully strip off all clothes before dipping in the public bath (there were separate sections for men and women).
We were only allowed to carry a small towel with us. Kohsan advised us to cover the bare minimum before soaking in the tub for a good 30 minutes. Later, we tried another onsen outlet which had huge Aomori apples floating in the tubs, emitting the sweet and tart fragrance of the fruit.
As it was still snowing, we decided to do some indoor activities. We tried our hand at painting kokeshi, or wooden dolls that had no arms or legs. These dolls are usually handmade and have been around for more than 150 years.
The next day, we visited Chuson-Ji temple in the town of Hiraizumi. The view at this place was just incredible, like a magical fairy land. The temple has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since June 2011.
Reports say that the temple was founded in 850, but much of it was destroyed and then rebuilt throughout the years. However, two of the original buildings remain – the Konjikido and Kyozo hall. Konjikido or the Golden Pavilion is completely covered in gold and mother-of-pearl inlays, providing a breathtaking example of the craftsmanship of its time. No photographs are permitted inside though. We simply walked in, clasped our hands and offered prayers in silence.
Lunch this time around was interesting as we took part in the the “soba challenge”. In this challenge, a waitress stands next to you and the moment you empty your bowl, another helping goes straight in. The idea is to gulp down as many bowls of noodles as you possible can within 10 minutes.
I managed to scarf down 56 bowls. Not bad, I guess, for a mid-size guy. But in their bid to outdo one another, Kohsan and another guest tried to cheat! Their final tally was 100 bowls each but the “judges” ruled them null and void.
We continued our trip with a visit to Kakunodate, also known as Little Kyoto. Kakunodate is a former castle town that’s famous for its samurai traditions. Though the castle itself no longer stands, Kakunodate remains remarkably unchanged since it was founded in 1620. Once home to 80 families, the district still has some of the best examples of samurai architecture in all of Japan.
The place is also well known as the location of one of Tohoku’s most popular cherry blossom spots. In late April/early May, large crowds of visitors will come and see the town’s pink blossoms and historic homes.
At the Magewappa Craft centre, we learnt to make our own wood craft from a master crafter. The 45-minute experience brought back memories of being at school with my crazy bunch of buddies, some 30 years back.
Magewappa is a traditional craft technique that locals have practised for about 400 years in Odate city. Odate is at the Shirakami mountains, a World Heritage site known as one of the most famous cedar growing districts in Japan. The cedar trees have high-quality bark that are used to make beautiful wooden pieces such as trays, lunch boxes, steamers and salad bowls.
At dinner, the namahage deities (ogre-like demons used to frighten naughty children into behaving) roamed around our table, shouting profanities. This is a local tradition that is now considered one of the most fascinating things to see in Japan.
We then took a walk to the captivating Fujita Memorial Garden, which was built in 1919. A few interesting buildings can be found there, including a traditional Japanese house, a tea ceremony house and a small museum.
The following day, we went to Aomori prefecture to check out an apple packaging factory. Did you know that each apple sold has a unique ID and graded according to sweetness, texture and size? Before, I thought all apples were just dumped in a box and distributed.
About 35 million apples are shipped out a year, roughly about 160,000 a day in 4,000 crates. Between September and November, you can visit the apple farm and pluck the fruits from the trees.
We also took a nostalgic journey on board a stove train. We sat near the potbelly coal stove and had some snacks while enjoying the snowy view from the window. The train has been around since 1929 and is considered a national heritage. Today it covers 12 stations from Tsugaru Naka Sato to Goshogawara, a distance of about 20.7km or 40 minutes.
Later, we had our first “blizzard experience”. We covered ourselves in a blanket and walked against a massive snowstorm. To aid our steps in the thick snow, we had to strap bamboo to our shoes. It was one hell of an experience as we could hardly trek ahead. Such is the ferocity of nature.
No trip overseas would be complete without a trip to the shops to buy souvenirs and local food items, and there were many to choose from.
As our Thai Airways aircraft touched down at KLIA, I pledged to return to Tohoku some day. To borrow a catchphrase from my idol, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I’ll be back” – but with my family, of course.