Winter Wonders Tour 2019
Our first small group tour of 2019 was our Winter Wonders Tour. This tour was a 12 day tour which ran from January 27th to February 7th, 2019. Our small group from Australia had a wonderful time traveling through northern Japan taking in beautiful winter scenery at some of Japan's most famous Buddhist temples, Shinto Shrines, and nature spots. The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the 2019 Sapporo Snow Festival though.
We began the tour in Tokyo, where we experienced both the old and the new of the largest metropolis on earth. On our full day tour of Tokyo we started by visiting the old downtown area of the city - Ueno and Asakusa. This area of Tokyo has bustling markets such as the Ameyayokocho Markets in Ueno and ancient temples and shrines such as Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Sensoji Temple is the oldest and most visited Buddhist temple in Tokyo. The customers really enjoyed shopping in this area of Tokyo as well, picking up some beautiful souvenirs such as a kimono and some traditional ornaments.
Next we went to two of Tokyo's more modern places - the Tokyo Skytree and the entertainment district of Odaiba. The clear winter weather played its part in providing us with some spectacular views of this amazing city from the 450 meter high observation deck at the Skytree and from the bayside viewing platform at Odaiba.
After spending 2 nights in downtown Tokyo, we then traveled to the peace and quiet of Nagano, where we saw the world famous snow monkeys bathing in natural hot springs. At night we stayed in a traditional inn (ryokan) and enjoyed the soothing hot springs ourselves. The evening stroll through the small hot spring town of Shibu Onsen dressed in traditional Japanese attire was an extremely popular activity for the group.
Our next stop was the historic castle city of Kanazawa. Here we visited the beautiful Kenrokuen Gardens, widely considered to be the best gardens in Japan, and the historic Kanazawa Castle.
On our second day in Kanazawa we made the journey to the UNESCO World Heritage listed villages of Shirakawago and Gokayama. Not only did we see some of the most beautiful scenery Japan has to offer, but we were also able to enjoy another relaxing soak in some natural hot springs that we came across as we explored the less crowded area of Gokayama Village.
After spending two nights in Kanazawa, we then traveled half way back to Tokyo and stayed a night in the popular resort town of Karuizawa. Here the group had free time to enjoy themselves however they chose to. Half of the group went skiing at the nearby Karuizawa Prince Hotel Ski Resort, and the other half of the group went shopping at the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, one of Japan's largest outlet shopping malls.
The next leg of the tour took us north to the city of Sendai. From Sendai we enjoyed a leisurely day trip out to Matsushima Bay, where we enjoyed a lovely cruise around the bay and a nice walk around the township. We crossed over a pedestrian bridge to one of the 250 islands that dot the bay and spent almost an hour wondering around enjoying the beauty of this amazing place. We also visited several of the historic temples and shrines that can be found between the train station and the harbor.
Next it was on to Hokkaido! Before traveling to Sapporo to see the Sapporo Snow Festival, we stayed a night in the beautiful port city of Hakodate. Here we visited Japan's first ever Western-style fort - Goryokaku Fort - and in the evening went to the top of Mt Hakodate to take in a spectacular winter sunset and stunning night views of the city.
Our final stop on the tour was Sapporo. The train ride from Hakodate to Sapporo was absolutely amazing! For more than half of the 3 hour trip the train meanders along the east coastline of Hokkaido, providing breathtaking views of the pacific ocean in the middle of winter. Everyone in the group commented that it was the shortest 3 hour train ride they had ever had!
Once in Sapporo it was time for the main event - the Sapporo Snow Festival! More than 2 million people visit this week long festival each year, making it the largest winter event in Japan. We were able to visit all three sites, and take in all of the amazing ice and snow sculptures both during the day and at night.
On the last day of the tour we enjoyed a lovely day trip to the port city Otaru. Otaru is known as the "Venice of Japan" for its beautiful canal system and many local breweries. We enjoyed a delicious sushi lunch at a favorite restaurant along "Sushi Street". These restaurants have some of the freshest and best sushi in Japan and everyone just loved it!
Although nobody on this tour did it, there is also the option of using this last day to enjoy some of the best powder snow in the world at the famous ski resorts of Kiroro and Niseko! Both resorts are just a short distance from Sapporo and provide the perfect spot for a one day ski trip.
As with all of our tours everyone had a great time and there were no major issues at all during the tour. The weather was typically cold, but we escaped any major blizzards or cold snaps so all in all it was a very comfortable tour.
We look forward to seeing you on one of our fully escorted private or small group tours of Japan sometime soon!
A&C Tours Japan8