Kamikochi, Japan: Alpine Autumn Adventure

Although I am a winter child, autumn is my most favorite season and I am a big fan of autumn leaf viewing as well as hiking in this season. If I have to recommend only one autumn hike in Japan that could take anyone’s breath away and suit any level of fitness, my answer is Kamikochi in Chubu Sangaku National Park, Nagano Prefecture.

To be fair, there are more easily accessible places to hike in fall and if you don’t live in Chubu region, Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, going to your local spot will save more time and cost. That doesn’t mean Kamikochi is super expensive or difficult to reach though. Home to some of Japan’s most imposing mountains or Northern Japan Alps (including Japan’s third tallest peak or the 3,190-meter tall Mount Okuhotakadake), Kamikochi is also the country’s birthplace of recreational mountaineering. The valley remains as pristine as can be with tourism by forbidding private cars in the area except for authorities and those with special permission, so it offers some of the country’s ultimate waterscapes and is one of Japan’s Eight Most Scenic Landscapes (Nippon Hakkei) as well.

Kamikochi can be an easy weekend escape, a not-too-difficult-but-extremely-enjoyable adventure, or even a strenuous multi-day trek as you desire and design. I will categorize my Kamikochi trip as a not-too-difficult-but-extremely-enjoyable adventure that included walking the easy trail.

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Nagoya, Japan: The Pathos of Snow

I had the opportunity to call Nagoya home only temporarily. The closer my time there drew to a close, I inevitably grew more aware and more appreciative of my surroundings, no matter how seemingly ordinary.

Apart from the transient nature of my life as a graduate student in Nagoya, the fact that Thailand‘s capital city of Bangkok, my hometown and possibly permanent home from now on, only has summer, rainy season, and winter that rarely feels cold anymore made me appreciate the different colors of the four seasons in Japan even more. A country with four seasons does have its own pros and cons, but when it comes to a city with not-too-hot summer and not-too-cold winter (preferably with snow sometimes since I am fan), I have always been envious of how the locals get to enjoy the changing of the seasons. Which brings us back to the matter of impermanence.

Nagoya is one of the cities in Japan with moderate winter. I lived through three winters there from 2019 to 2021. In 2019, we didn’t get a single day of snow. In 2020, there were a couple of days with light snow and one very snowy night. But because I was holed up in my apartment working on my intensive course assignment and closed all my curtains, I didn’t notice that there was a lot of snow left in the morning. By the time I realized that it snowed from my friend’s messages and photos and hurriedly went out, the snow had almost completely melted due to Nagoya’s not-so-low temperature.

So when the 2021 winter started, I earnestly wished for at least one snowy day before my time in Nagoya ended in spring 2022. Luckily, my snowy dream came true on December 27, the day right after I submitted the first draft of my thesis. Plus it was snowing through the morning. I was so happy to finally be able to go out without worrying about academic responsibilities, but the weeks spent on thesis writing (read: cramming) made me too tired to go far in the cold. That was why I decided to just enjoy my local vistas. Armed with my coat and umbrella, I walked only in my neighborhood, but the snow made the scenery look so different that I couldn’t help taking so many photos to remember the fleeting beauty I saw that day.

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Asahidake, Japan: The Mountain Where Ainu Gods Play

At the heart of Hokkaido lies Daisetsuzan National Park or Japan’s biggest national park. It is home to over a dozen of mighty and high peaks and among them, Mount Asahidake stands unrivaled in Hokkaido when it comes to height and perhaps, beauty. Rising 2,290 meters, the mountain is actually an active volcano and it is poetically described by the indigenous Ainu people as the garden where gods play or “Kamuimintara” in the Ainu language.

The beauty of this godly playground is fortunately not off-limits to us mortals. It is even easy to access thanks to a combination of bus and ropeway that takes visitors up to the altitude of 1,600 meters. To explore it fully and hike to the top is another story though. “Daisetsuzan” actually means great snowy mountains and the national park lives up to its name, with Japan’s first and long-lasting snow that stays on Mount Asahidake from late-September until July. In addition to the short season for convenient visit, the weather on Mount Asahidake is very turbulent. It can change rapidly and even on a sunny day, there are possibilities that the way to the summit is shrouded in fog, rendering the hike inconvenient or even impossible.

With the goal of summiting it, I visited Hokkaido’s tallest mountain and volcano in August, which is its only month without snow (unless it is an unusually cold year). Although I was lucky that there was no snow, I was unlucky with the gloomy weather and the thick fog. Having to abandon my full-day hiking plan was a pity, but it turned into an opportunity to enjoy the shorter nature trail on Mount Asahidake at a more leisurely pace. Looking through the photos later made me realize the fog created interesting combination between the minimal sky and the maximal meadows, blurring the line between sparse and full. Moreover, the fog added the mystical air fitting for the link to Ainu gods.

A note to fellow Pokemon fans before we dive into the visuals: the mountain range of Daisetsuzan National Park has inspired one of the most significant locations in Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum, Mt. Coronet (Mt. Tengan in Japanese). Just like Mount Asahidake and its prominent status as the Roof of Hokkaido, Mt. Coronet rises at the center of Sinnoh and is the fictional region’s highest mountain as well. The eternal snow around the peak area is probably a tribute to the long winter in Daisetsuzan National Park. Although Mount Asahidake doesn’t have an ancient ruin at its peak like Spear Pillar at the very top of Mt. Coronet, it was designated as where the Legendary Pokemon Dialga, Palkia, and Giratina descended, possibly due to its celestial, sacred status in the Ainu religion.

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Otaru, Japan: Crafty Canal City

The world is nothing short of small cities with big amount of charms. I haven’t been everywhere, but few probably have all the charming details packed into its quite limited space like Otaru.

Once one of the most prosperous port cities on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, Otaru is long past its heyday for fishermen and merchants, but traces of its glory days remain almost everywhere and in so many aspects that travelers should dedicate a day to explore this small city. Otaru is lined with century-old warehouses and other European-influenced buildings that have been refurbished into craft shops, seafood restaurants, and cafes that look as if they belonged in picture books.

What’s more, imagine these time-honored places reflected upon the water of Otaru’s historical canal flanked by cobblestoned paths and classic gas lamps. Romantic.

For nature lovers, Otaru offers not only calming sea views as expected of a harbor city, but also a mountain that bursts into green in summer and turns into a tranquil silver world in winter.

With its east-meets-west air along the atmospheric canal, myriad of handicrafts, fresh sushi and gourmet sweets, and mountain and sea package, it is no wonder Otaru has been featured in J-pop MVs, manga, films, travel documentaries, and others. In this post, I will show Otaru through my perspective as not only a tourist and an admirer of the little details but also a fan of the Pokemon video games and the K-pop group NCT 127.

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Coming Home (Last Memories of Nagoya, Until the Day We Meet Again)

Though it has already been a month and a few days since I came home, writing this post from my very own bedroom still feels surreal.

I left Nagoya on March 30 and arrived in Bangkok on the same day. March was my last month in Japan before moving back to Thailand, so I knew it would be a very busy month, but it ended up more hectic than expected. Especially when comparing it to fun-filled February, with post-thesis defense indulgence like NCT 127 official cafe event along with my and Jaehyun’s birthday and Doyoung’s birthday; unforgettable day trips with friends and one last long solo trip before graduation, all of which I want to write full posts about one day; and the generally relaxing atmosphere. Not that March was 100% stressful. There were happy moments and heartfelt farewells too, but in the last few weeks, a lot of things just went wrong despite my efforts to finish the pre-departure procedures early on and these exhausted me. I wish I could have spent more time in March traveling and relaxing, but since everything already happened the way it did, I want to record personal reflections and some of the memorable moments (both the good and the bad) during my last week in Japan here.

I shared some photos and parts of the stories about the last week on my Instagram already, but due to word limit, I didn’t get to write everything I wanted. I also held myself back from talking about certain things because I don’t want to be too ranty or cringey there. As weird as this may sound, I am actually not comfortable sharing some thoughts and feelings with acquaintances and some friends who are following me on IG. It is easier to express myself more on this blog, where most readers are close friends and people I have never met.

With that, I am warning you that this is a long-winded post and some parts of this post are very ranty and cringey. Musings and photos from Nagoya to Bangkok aside, here go many stories, even the most ranty and random ones, that I want to immortalize in one place.

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