Sunday, September 14, 2014

Travel planning: almost my favourite bit

I absolutely adore the planning stage of a trip, even more so now that I can google away to my heart's content and find answers to pretty well any travel related question. Having been a frequenter of Lonely Planet's travel forum "Thorn Tree" for many years it amazes me how many people post questions there when they ought to just google it.

So in keeping with my theme that an old LP guidebook is just as useful as a new one, I popped in to the library and borrowed a 2009 edition of LP Japan to start the creative juices going, then began the google game. Here's what I've come up with:

First I bought a cheap Air Asia flight to Tokyo. With extra baggage, it cost a little shy of $500. I arrive into Tokyo on a Sunday morning (I'm quite used to red-eye flights and can sleep pretty easily with the use of a mask and ear plugs) and my ski tour begins on Monday, from Narita, so I've stumped up for an airport hotel and will spend the day visiting Tokyo.

My ski tour takes advantage of the 5 Day JR East rail pass, which allows use of all JR Rail trains from Tokyo to the northern tip of Honshu, including Shinkansen (bullet trains) for 5 days within a 2 week period. Since the tour only uses 3 of these days, I'll buy mine a day early and use it to travel in to Tokyo for the day. It doesn't work on the Tokyo subway,  so I'll also grab a SUICA card, which is a prepaid card for using on the subway and buses within Tokyo but is transferable to other mass transport jurisdictions throughout the country.

I'm yet to decide what I'll do in Tokyo, but being Sunday I'll probably go see the wacky youth fashion in Harajuku, check out the Shibuya Crossing, do some retail therapy in a camera shop or two, and get my zen on at Senso-Ji temple.

Because my tour begins at Narita airport I'm staying out there, which isn't such a big deal as I can use the rail pass to get into Tokyo and return, a trip of 55 min each way. I plan to leave the luggage at the airport and either leave it overnight or schlep it to and from the hotel on the shuttle bus when I return from Tokyo Sunday evening.

Monday morning, back at the airport, I meet up with my tour group and thus begins 17 days of travel through both Honshu and Hokkaido chasing powder stashes. In order to enjoy this, I just purchased a new set of poles, with powder baskets, because my old Scott poles are not only bent, the baskets are useless in thick snow, let alone Japanese powder!! My last couple of days at Mt Olympus last year were memorable for the complete incapacity of my poles to do anything but keep sinking like avalanche probes.

Talking of which, we may be doing some backcountry skiing this trip, so I'm keeping my eye out for a good deal on some Avi gear. After skiing Mt Olympus last year, I know I need to get at least a shovel, probe and beacon if I'm going to start thinking about skiing out of patrolled ski areas more often. Even on the ski field at Olympus we wore beacons!

The final few days of the tour we are based in Sapporo, skiing nearby fields, and on the 19th we head home. Only I decided to stay a little longer, so have booked myself a couple of nights at Niseko, as it's not included on the itinerary due to it being crowded with too many Westerners looking for powder stashes. I'm mainly going to Niseko so I can at least experience it, and because at least 3 of my friends will be working there and I want to catch up with them. I'm staying in a little pensione in the quieter village of Annapuri but am sure to spend one of my nights doing pizzas with friends in the village!!

After 2-3 days skiing Niseko, I take the bus back to the airport at Chitose and fly to Osaka with Jetstar for $90. I'm taking the last, and cheapest, flight that day in order to get in a full day's skiing, but it arrives into Osaka KIX at midnight, after all the trains have finished for the night. That's because it's part of an ongoing flight to Australia, only I'm not taking that section, so will sleep in the airport overnight. Sleeping in Airports puts Osaka in the top ten best Asian airports (Changi consistently scores number one, worldwide) and apparently you can even get a free blanket near the Lawsons convenience store. I've slept overnight in quite a few airports in my day, and I really can't justify an expensive airport hotel bed for just a few hours. Lucky me, I may be a ski goddess, but I'm no princess!!

Next morning I purchase a return Haruka and ICOCA ticket and take the Haruka express to Kyoto. I've booked into a comfy hostel dormitory not far from Kyoto Station, and will use that as my base for the week. Yes, one whole week in Kansai.

The ICOCA ticket is another prepaid ticket, which allows you to put credit onto it and then swipe it when you use trains in the Kansai region (which is Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto and Nara). Any leftover credit on my Tokyo SUICA card can also be used here, and I can also use the ICOCA on buses in Nara.

I once had a pen friend from Nara. We corresponded for a few years when I was studying Japanese at high school (she was studying English), but then we both stopped writing. I have postcards of all the temples, and the famous deer, that she sent me, and I even found her address amongst my old letters. I'm almost tempted to send a letter (I've tried google and Facebook but it's too long ago and I have no idea what she looks like now) and see if her family still live there.

Kyoto and Nara are chokka block full of old temples, culture and zen gardens, so I'm expecting it to be a sensual delight. It's the one part of Japan I've particularly wanted to explore, so I think spending all my time in just the one region is a good plan. Especially because I don't want to have to lug my ski bag all over the countryside...

Following my week in and around Kyoto I jump back on the Haruka express and fly out of Osaka, via Manila and Singapore, to Perth with Jetstar. That flight costs a couple of dollars over $500.

I'd always thought that travel in Japan was expensive, but it's really not that bad. My ski tour is a little pricey, but totally worth it to have an experienced ski guide for almost 3 weeks. It's certainly a lot cheaper than ski touring in NZ and much better value than a dive live aboard! But the 10 days I'm organising myself reveal quite reasonably priced accommodation options, cheap internal flights, and some good rail pass deals (at least for visiting foreigners). Ski lift tickets are also half the price of Australia.

I've still a few purchases to make, like a better rolling ski bag than the one I have currently (it's too big, floppy and heavy), and some back country avalanche gear, but otherwise I'm pretty well organised.

Now just gotta work on the fitness....


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