Tuesday, February 28, 2023

February 2023 recap - Hokkaido snowboarding, MiuraKaigan sakura matsuri, solo day + aquarium & cafes in Tokyo

February is a cold, short month, but we surprisingly managed to fit a lot of fun in! From nearby travel by train (Tokyo and Miurakaigan) to a little bit further by plane (Hokkaido), we did a bit of exploring and had some new experiences. 

Trip to Hokkaido
Snowboarding at Niseko Grand Hirafu (& Hanezono) (1 day)
Snowboarding was the impetus for this 5 day trip that we booked back in October, hoping for good weather. We had our first snowboarding day at Niseko (my husband's and my first visit) about 1.5 hours away from our hotel in Otaru by car. There hadn't been a ton of recent snow, so there were some choppy portions but a lot of the mountain was open, and I had a good time with our whole group! After lunch, we even ventured down to the Hanezono side quickly before those lifts closed which included my first red/intermediate run. 

Our all day lift tickets allowed for some night skiing/boarding as well, so we did a couple runs with the lights up. This was another first for me. It was a lot colder and a bit harder to see (my googles tint is a little dark), but it was nice that the runs were a lot less crowded! Would definitely do again if the opportunity presents itself.

Snowboarding at Kiroro Ski Resort (1.5 days)
Kiroro was about 45 minutes away from our hotel, but in a somewhat more remote location and through some winding roads. The first day we went, there was fresh snow but it was so windy (30-35 mph) that none of the top lifts/runs were open which was a huge bummer. That being said, it was terribly cold and snow was constantly whipping around at just the lower levels so I'm not sure I could have handled the weather at the top anyway. 
We had some fun on the lower, mostly empty slopes with pretty much no wait ever and I got fairly confident on some of the steeper hills. Most of what we rode this day was red/intermediate! It did feel pretty junk to be missing most of Kiroro had to offer, but that's why we ended up coming back for a half day on the day we were flying out...

Originally we had siteseeing activities planned for this day, but because of the better weather and the promising powder, we ditched our itinerary in favor of snowboarding once we knew the upper lifts would be open in the morning.
We stuck with the higher runs as much as possible, including a few black/expert sections that were full of powder. It's hard to tell from photos and videos, but it was pretty deep and hard to get up if you fell down a lot like me. This was my first time in such deep snow and such a steep incline, but I kind of got the hang of it by the end! We only had time to go back to the hotel and pick up our bags before heading to the airport for our flight, but I think it was worth it for the extra snowboarding :)

Shiroi Koibito Park
I visited here with my parents back in Spring 2016, but my husband has never been, so I put this on the list of things to do in Sapporo! Unfortunately we had some bad timing for the cookie or chocolate decorating experience, but we were still able to go through the self-guided walking tour.
There's a lot of the factory that's the same from 7 years ago, but the outside is certainly different in the winter than it is in May/spring! It was fun to see snow covering all of the garden area. 

Sapporo Beer Museum
This was another second visit for me in an entirely different season and group of people. We started with lunch at Garden Grill (only place we could get last minute reservations at lunch time on a Sunday), then went for the tasting and self-guided tour. 

Moerenuma Park
This park came up when I was searching for open air museums for another occasion and it's about 30 minutes by car from central Sapporo. There's a giant hill for sledding...but you do need to bring your own sled! 
The park is actually quite big and filled with snow and different buildings. We ended up just checking out the two giant hills and heading back out since we had other things to do, but it's a decent side trip, especially if you had kids and snow play equipment!

Other quick notes
We flew ANA over to Hokkaido and AirDo (via ANA) back. Both flights were delayed by 30+ minutes wtf. But our flight over had a Demon Slayer theme lol.
The hotel we stayed at was the Grand Park Otaru. The room was quite decently sized, especially for the price and we had a nice view too. There's no drying room for snow stuff, but there is a "locker" area in the lobby if you want to store your equipment down there (no lock with public access). 
We did rent a van for this trip (for 6 people and snowboarding equipment) which was absolutely essential for conveniently getting around to the resorts (arriving and leaving when we wanted) and was especially nice when the weather was bad. We were a little cramped with the snowboards in the car, but it worked out well.
I had a cough nearly the entire time (and was feeling pretty crappy by the end tbh), but otherwise I had a good trip! I would definitely consider visiting Hokkaido again for snowboarding. We sent our snowboards/gear over in a single bag via kuroneko and it was 4720yen round trip - absolutely worth it not to have to hassle with the bag on the train or at the airport for us. It went straight to the hotel and we were able to ship it back from there to our house. It did require several days shipment in advance, but that wasn't an issue for us. 
It would have been nice to do a couple more touristy things we missed on the last day, but since we traveled for snowboarding, snowboarding in good conditions made sense! 

Miurakaigan Kawazu-zakura Matsuri
On one of my days off while my husband was on his work trip, I ventured over to Miurakaigan to check out a ramen restaurant I had seen randomly seen on Twitter. Come to find out, it was right at the beginning of the kawazu-zakura matsuri! Kawazu-type sakura bloom earlier in the season, hence the festival in February.
The ramen shop owner actually told me a little bit more about it, and I went to go preview the route where there were some tiny buds and maybe a few flowers. He told me to come back in a couple weeks and there would be lots of sakura and crowds of people.

So we did! After our return from Hokkaido, we caught the train over after our workday. The sun was already starting to set, but we didn't want to risk missing the full bloom by waiting until the weekend.
The lack of sunlight was less than ideal for photos, but it was still a very pleasant experience in person to see the flowers. Since it was so late in the day, it was actually quite empty, and we were able to take our time and browse at our own pace.
Of course, we stopped by for ramen (again for me, first time for my husband) and had another small, pleasant conversation with the owner who said it was quite packed earlier in the day!
I'm glad we caught a glimpse of the flowers this time, but want to plan to go in the day time next year!

Solo day in Tokyo
After riding most of the way into Tokyo late on a Sunday morning with my husband to escort him to the airport for his work trip, I continued and made my way over to Harajuku by myself. First, some shopping on Takeshita-dori and Tokyu Plaza.

Then, a brief stop at the Samung Galaxy x Team Lab space for their marine themed exhibition. Last time I visited in July, the theme was Sacred Forest. Fish are more my jam, and it's free to experience, so I made a same day reservation and went to check it out by myself!
It's 100% the same concept as before where you are provided a Samsung phone to "catch" the wildlife and interact with the lighted installation, but I very much appreciated the fish theme :)

Last item on my solo exploration itinerary was trying to catch some plum/ume blossoms! I made my way over to Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens about 45 minutes before it closed. 
The flower were pretty sparse on the trees, but some were nice in person! I was definitely at least a handful of weeks too early since this was still the first weekend in February.
I otherwise just had a nice walk around a park near sundown to complete my day.

Sunday date in Tokyo
Sunshine Aquarium at Ikebukuro Sunshine City 
From the Sunshine Aquarium twitter account, I thought I had seen that they posted something about featuring a flapjack octopus on the first floor as part of their deep sea exhibition. I know they're not commonly kept for a long time in captivity, so I dragged my husband along to check it out.
But it was just a little exhibit?? And no live flapjack :(
Since we were visiting on Sunday, it was quite crowded with families with young children and the aquarium itself is not very big for the entrance price. It would have absoutely been worth it for the flapjack, but I guess it was just a little too good to be true. 

Pikachu Sweets by Pokemon Cafe in Ikebukuro Sunshine City
Since we were already in Ikebukuro for the aquarium, we decided we wanted to try out some of the themed cafes too. This Pikachu Sweets Pokemon Cafe is a takeout only type "restaurant". While there are some counters/tables, there are no chairs and employees will ask you to leave if you dawdle for too long. 
We got the Pikachu Pokeffle (pokemon waffle with honey) and drink set with a hot latte and then then a vanilla soft cream. My husband wasn't too impressed with the waffle and drink (wouldn't buy it again) and the soft cream wasn't anything great either. Probably wouldn't bother visiting again, but the theming is cute!

Sanrio Cafe in Ikebukuro Sunshine City
This cafe has a takeout counter with nearly no line (there's a vending machine to purchase food tickets) and then an actual sit down restaurant to the side with a 1 hour limit and minimum 500yen order. I accidentally purchased a takeout ticket for the hello kitty bun so I ate one while we waited for the cafe seating lol. 
Once we were seated, I order another bun (it was pretty good lol), a chocolate donut and my husband got a hangyodon stamped ebikatsu burger with fries. 
We were a lot more pleased with this one compared to the pokemon cafe and it's a lot less crowded. The food isn't blow-your-mind fantastic, but it's definitely passable and looks pretty much exactly like the photos.

What we ate
Some variety from our Hokkaido trip, but otherwise a pretty normal month with what have become some old favorites and trying to include some new ones when we're not feeling so shy lol. 
Kura Sushi

Yomenya Goemon

Ramen Arai x2 (Miurakaigan)


Kappa Sushi


Miso and Shoyu ramen from Ramen SORA (New Chitose Airport, Hokkaido)

Soft serve from Shiroi Koibito Park (Sapporo, Hokkaido)

Soup curry and tonkatsu curry (New Chitose Airport, Hokkaido)

Tanta-an (Niseko, Hokkaido)

Niseko Pizza (Kutchen, Hokkaido)

Genghis Khan and Hokkaido beef from Garden Grill (Sapporo Beer Museum, Hokkaido)

Hanmiage (half deep fried chicken) and zangi chicken don from Naruto Honten (Otaru, Hokkaido)

Braised venison and pepperoni pizza from Cafeteria Lumiere (Kiroro, Hokkaido)

Random discount shopping mall cucumber maki (Hokkaido)

Shoyu and Miso ramen from Shirakaba-sansou (New Chitose Airport, Hokkaido)

Shoya 庄や

Tantanmen from 元祖ニュータンタンメン

Pikachu pokeffle / hot latte drink set and soft cream from Pikachu Sweets Pokemon Cafe (Ikebukuro)

Ebikatsu burger, pork steamed bun and sweet chocolate donut from Sanrio Cafe (Ikebukuro)

Personal life/miscellaneous
My husband went on a second trip to Okinawa at the beginning of the month, so that was a pretty mundane week for me. I just continued with my typical work week and nothing really new happened except I had a few solo outings. His 30th birthday was during that trip though, so he basically celebrated solo lol. 
When he returned home, we did host some friends for a small birthday get together dinner + a bunch of soju. 
I had some fun decorating the house and they're still up at the end of the month lol. Nothing super special for Valentines Day which is pretty typical for us. 

Outfits this month can be found in my previous post here! I felt like I was slacking off a lot but still managed to only miss a handful of days from the month (especially considering a few were snowboarding).
I didn't think I'd say this at the beginning of winter, but I'm tired of wearing coats all the time and am looking forward to having more outerwear options (with my lighterweight pieces)! 

Not a lot else to report on in this miscellaneous section because we actually had quite a few bigger weekend items that I wanted to feature on their own above. 
It was a good month with some great new experiences and fun with friends. This was my first full February in Japan (almost coming up on my 1 year mark of living in the country), and it was interesting to see how much there was to see/do!