When we were moving back to Moscow from the BVI, we were faced with a major luggage dilemma. I would need to fly from the BVI to Miami and then a month later would be going on from there to London to collect a new work visa.

Having originally paid more than $5,000 to ship all of our belongings to the BVI, we didn't want to do it a second time on our return trip. Therefore, we loaded up all of our suitcases and decided to fly our luggage back with us. Our family helped us out with a few cases when they were over on vacation but we were still left with six 32kg cases to deal with.

Getting from the BVI to Miami involved taking a flight from the USVI to Miami International - usually a couple of hundred dollars but with all of the excess and overweight luggage we had, it would have cost us a fortune flying in economy. Luckily, I had accumulated a few miles with American Airlines using my Scotia Bank credit card and we had enough miles to book two one way business class tickets - these cost us next to nothing in taxes and allowed us to take all of our cases free of charge.

However, Miami to London was going to be a different story. The economy class flight with BA was over $600 and the excess luggage would have take the total cost to over $1,000. That seemed very steep for a one way economy class ticket. If only I had more miles on American right?!

Then, scrolling through my junk emails one morning I spotted the email that would change air travel for me forever. American Airlines were offering a 50% bonus on any miles you purchased from them. I couldn't believe my luck - I could purchase enough miles to buy a one way first class ticket from Miami to London, via New York, which would allow me to fly on BA's flagship first class service from JFK to London. Sound expensive right?! Wrong - the total cost of the journey was around $800 using the purchased miles. That was less than the economy class ticket when you factored in the baggage costs.

What a bargain! Go and check out how much a one way first class ticket on this service would usually set you back. A lot right. But here I had bagged one for under $1,000. The flight itself was exceptional; I particularly enjoyed the complimentary filet mignon in the first class lounge whilst waiting for the connection in JFK, and although the flight is too short for a proper night's sleep I thought the complimentary first class BA pyjamas were a nice touch.

It turns out that this trick is entirely repeatable and is particularly profitable when using the American based airlines; American and United, as opposed to their European counterparts. Purchasing miles in their sales, which seem to take place at least twice every year, and then booking value award flights gives you the opportunity to save thousand of dollars on premium tickets.

The best thing is - this doesn't only work for Business and First class but also for economy class tickets. I was recently booking the flights for our dream honeymoon, which would involve us completing an around the world circuit back from our destination wedding in California to Moscow. The problem was that the flights from LA to Hawaii to Guam to Palau to Seoul were going to set us back a rather steep $5,000 per person. I noticed however that all of the flights were with United. What if they had the same deal as American Airlines, allowing me to book our honeymoon flights for a fraction of the cost?

Well, it turned out that the very day I was looking was the last day of United's miles discount sale. First checking the availability of the award flights and then making sure I could purchase enough miles to cover the journey, I figured out that the flights would cost us less than $2,500 for both of us! This would be a saving of more than $7,500, which would pay for all of the accommodation on our honeymoon as well.

It may have taken me more than a few hours to jump through all the hoops of selecting the correct connections on the award flight, carefully picking the days of our flights, and then calculating how many miles we needed and making sure we didn't go over the cap on purchases, but it was well worth the extra effort.

So next time you're booking a flight, be sure to check out the award flights availability for that flight and then how much it would cost you to purchase the miles to cover that flight rather than paying the airfare. You might be pleasantly surprised!

Happy travels and be sure to let me know what your best airfare deal was in the comments!

Day 1

Prior to travelling to Niseko, I was keen to spend every moment I could enjoying the famous powder and so had booked the earliest flight possible from Tokyo to New Chitose airport. Unfortunately, I had improperly researched the impact this would have on our ground transportation plans.

Firstly, it turned out that despite us landing at 07:40 in the morning, the first bus wouldn’t be until about 09:30 and by the time it took over 3 hours to reach our destination, the chances of me skiing that day would be slim to none. So, private transfer it was (which unfortunately meant paying around twelve times as much as the bus would have cost – good start!).

Then, there was the small matter of getting to Tokyo Narita airport for the 06:00 flight. It seems that at that time of night, there are no train services running to the airport. So it was either take another taxi (apparently costing around $300 as well) or take a train at 10pm and sit in the airport waiting. Luckily, I managed to find another alternative – there was a little advertised limousine bus available at 01:30 in the morning from Shinjuku to Narita; the bus wasn’t listed on their English bus schedule but it was on the Japanese one.

Once we arrived in the airport, we were of course the last to the party – all of the Japanese fliers had clearly arrived hours ago, probably on the 10pm train, and were sleeping on every possible surface (including many on the floor). At least they weren’t exactly queuing, allowing us to stake out a position at the front of the check-in line.

Once we arrived, the transfer went very smoothly, clearly our agent (Samurai Snow) had done a good job of arranging things for us. The hotel (Ikoino Yuyado Iroha - http://www.booking.com/hotel/jp/ikoino-yuyado-iroha.html?aid=1223809&no_rooms=1&group_adults=2&room1=A%2CA) looked very nice as well though unfortunately our room wouldn’t be ready until 3pm. Not to worry – we changed quickly in the onsen into our ski gear and grabbed the shuttle bus to go and rent some skis from Rhythm in Grand Hirafu.

It was at this point, after a good 40-minute bus ride, we realized just how far out of the way Annupuri was compared to the main ski area. If only we had known beforehand, we would definitely have booked one of the many hotels in the Hirafu area, or perhaps even Hanazono based on our later experiences on the slopes.

Equipped with a couple of pairs of nice fat Soul 7s we headed toward the Hirafu lifts – by this point it was around 11:30 so we weren’t doing bad all things considered. We took it fairly steady on our first day, getting to know the Hirafu ski area but enjoyed some nice powdery runs between the trees at the top end of the slopes. Unfortunately, the upper lifts were closed for wind that day (seems to be a common occurrence in the Niseko area so worth considering when you pick which resort to stay in) so there was no connectivity with Annupuri. We didn’t really fancy the bootpack over to Niseko Village either so stuck to Hirafu and took the bus back in the evening.

Help me!

Back at the hotel, the reception staff gave us our room key and then quizzed us as to what time we would like dinner. Uh oh. This was starting to sound a little bit like the ryokans… We picked the earliest slot and then headed to the onsen; although separated for men and women it was cool to have a volcanic hot spring right in the hotel and the outdoor area was a nice bonus, allowing you to sit outside and enjoy the scenery whilst soaking in the warmth from the springs.

Even the toilet shoes were back!

Dinner time was a definite disappointment. We were back to Gion Hatanaka style multi-course meals of various raw fish, pickles and raw egg based dishes. Not exactly what we needed after a hard day on the mountain and we went to bed feeling a little hungry and dreading the inevitable bowl of cold bark honey raw egg porridge in the morning.

Day 2

Up early to catch the first bus to the ski area, we apprehensively made our way over to breakfast (or at least I did whilst my fiancée was still getting ready). I couldn’t believe my luck when I got into the restaurant. A buffet. A breakfast buffet! Never mind that the bacon was really ham, the scrambled eggs looked strange and apple cider vinegar was offered as a beverage – this was way better than cold slop and so I texted my fiancée to get down here ASAP before it all evaporated.

Bit sharp for the morning...
We were in luck that day as the top of the mountain was open so we took the bus to Annupuri and headed up the mountain from there. When all the lifts are open, the mountain is very well connected, much like a less extensive Whistler, and we spent the morning enjoying some of the fresh powder on the Wonderland chair, which had been closed the day before.

Figuring out how to get out of Annupuri

After a quick run down to the village and back up, I decided it was time to step things up a level and left my fiancée to go and try the newly opened Gate 11. Ski patrol presented me with a set of the Niseko rules on my way out of the gate and I managed to follow a couple of other skiers down through the gulley, not wanting to ski off on my own into unknown territory.

The powder at the top was great but further down towards the village snow conditions were still pretty marginal given it was so early in the season – the gulley was narrow and the powder was scarce; the Soul 7s were not the ideal ski for the job but I made it down in one piece, and with both skis still attached (unlike the guy I spent 15 minutes helping to find his lost ski).

Reunited with my fiancée, we decided it was time for lunch and headed for a nice bowl of udon with pork cutlet curry (my new favourite) at the Lookout Café (lured in by the adverts from Hilton pasted all over the village gondola). Refreshed and warm again, we spent the afternoon back in the hirafu area before heading back over to Annupuri for the last run of the day.

We planned on enduring another meal in the hotel as we didn’t want a late night, given that we would be CAT skiing the next day. However, our plans quickly changed when we found out that CAT skiing had been cancelled due to a lack of fresh snow. Very disappointed, we managed to re-book onto a tour the next day (and our agent quickly confirmed that this was all fine) and decided to drown our sorrows with some junk food in Hirafu. But not before eating/looking at the meal that the hotel had already prepared for us.

Armed with a nice English translation of the menu, we could now confirm that each of the dishes was not really fit for consumption, the highlight being the pumpkin with egg custard (and surprise octopus, not worthy of being listed on the menu). It’s truly amazing in just how many Japanese dishes octopus shows up as an unexpected ingredient...

Custard and pumpkin with surprise octopus

Another 40-minute bus ride and we found ourselves in the Bigfoot bar in downtown Hirafu. The atmosphere was lively and we enjoyed poutine (a new ski resort favourite of mine after Whistler) and chicken wings whilst playing 9 ball (there weren’t enough balls left to play a full game of pool). At the end of the night we were forced to take a taxi back to Annupuri – a nice $50 treat meaning we probably wouldn’t be heading into town for food again.

Day 3

We decided to check out the last remaining Niseko resort, Hanazono, given that our CAT skiing wouldn’t be happening that day. We were lucky to have had a fresh dusting of snow overnight (reports were saying 1cm but I’m certain it was much more) and after a couple of runs down we’d decided that Hanazono was definitely our favourite resort out of the four. There were plenty of nice tree runs for me to enjoy, ducking underneath the top chair lift and then either into blueberry or strawberry fields. These were tracked by nice groomers with a fresh dusting for my fiancée to enjoy.

Whilst eating lunch in 308 we confirmed with the Hanazono team that CAT skiing would probably go ahead the next day; it had been snowing none stop all morning and seemed likely to continue throughout the day so the tracked out CAT runs should be good to go by morning.

We spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the powder fields of Hanazono before the long traverse back to Annupuri, seemingly impossible in a single run; we made it as far as the Wonderland chair.

As we had to be up early for CAT skiing in the morning, we decided to brave the hotel menu again (it couldn’t be worse than pumpkin custard with surprise octopus right?!) and then had a quick soak in the onsen for our sore muscles – three days in and we were already starting to feel the pain from the onslaught of exercise.

Day 4

We had picked to go CAT skiing at Niseko Weiss, which our agent had assured us would be a suitable level for my fiancée who didn’t have any experience with powder skiing. Overnight there had been even more snow and we were looking forward to a great day. After a long drive out to Hanazono we had a quick safety briefing (I was quite surprised that we were all given beacons but only shown how to switch them on to track mode – unlike the brief avalanche training we had received when going heli skiing in Whistler). Then, it was just a short drive up to the disused Weiss resort where we loaded into the CAT.

The top of the first run was cold and blustery, with an unfortunately steep drop off onto the first run. This did not give my fiancée the confidence boost she much needed and we were quickly back to snow plough turns and falling over. I tried to reassure her but the first run was a bit of a disaster, even if by the end of it she was linking turns nicely again in the deep powder.

However, the second run didn’t drop off from the same point and the snow at the top didn’t have the same crust to it. She began to get into the swing of things and enjoyed the powder. I was having a blast, cutting in and out of the trees and enjoying the long runs down. This was what Japow was all about!

By lunch time, she couldn’t get enough of it and even the Japanese bento box couldn’t bring us down – despite similarities to our hotel’s cuisine. Over lunch, snow was dumping outside and by the time we got back up to the top, tracks from the morning had almost been covered over. The afternoon was a blast and we finished around 8 or 9 runs in total, which was well above the average despite having had to stop for somebody to be taken down with a knee injury at one point.

The guides were great and managed to grab some good photos of us throughout the day. I also got some cool footage on the Nikon Key Mission, which performed much better in the deep powder than it did in the resort (much less vibration on the footage). I would highly recommend taking this trip to anybody looking to get a taste of off-piste for the first time!

Our CAT skiing group

Unable to bear the thought of another night of hotel food, and not wanting to foot another $50 taxi ride on top of dinner, we decided to head to the Korean BBQ place over the road (but booked in for dinner at 19:30 in any event to avoid being impolite). On the way over the road we joked about how they would probably report us to the hotel for cheating on them and ordering BBQ food before dinner.

Nothing could have prepared us for the scenario where we entered the BBQ restaurant and were greeted by the same hotel waiting staff. Turns out reporting back was the least of our worries – they owned the damned restaurant. If only we had picked the pizza joint, though they probably own that as well! They then proceeded to ask us for our meal voucher! Wait, what?! You mean to tell us that all this time we could have been eating Korean BBQ instead of pumpkin custard surprise octopus?! Unbelievable.

Unfortunately, things then got very awkward when they confirmed that tonight, they had already prepared dinner in the other restaurant and so we could not eat in the BBQ restaurant. We persisted, insisting that we would pay for the BBQ ourselves and later eat in the hotel restaurant. When this was translated to the BBQ restaurant chef he just couldn’t contain his look of amazed disapproval. Who were these two foreigners that thought they could eat all you can eat BBQ followed by another meal an hour later. Obviously he had not been privy to the fact that we had sent back most dishes from dinner so far uneaten…

After stuffing ourselves full of delicious meat, cooked on the little grill in the middle of our table, we made our way back to the hotel for a lie down to try and digest something before dinner. At least we wouldn’t be going to bed hungry tonight!!

We could have eaten this every night!

Even after a rest and showing up 10 minutes late (how could we!), dinner was a particularly torturous affair that night; even the couple of dishes we could eat were a struggle to keep down after all of the tasty BBQ meat. Finally it was over and time for bed, up early again in the morning for our trip to Rusutsu.

Day 5

Our last full day of skiing and we had booked our final tour – a day’s guided skiing in Rusutsu. For this trip, our agent had used Niseko Photography and after picking us up at our hotel, we arrived at Rusutsu in plenty of time for the opening of the lifts. Although the resort was smaller than Niseko’s four resorts in one, we were promised plenty of nice tree runs and good on-piste runs for my fiancée that tracked the tree runs down so we wouldn’t need to split up.

Once again the day wasn’t off to a great start when on the second run, we needed to take a double black diamond run to connect us to a different chair lift. The slope was steep and my fiancée was definitely worried about the grading – despite my assurances that she had braved much worse on our trip to Squaw and done just fine. Things seemed to be going well though as she linked some nice turns down the top half so I head off with the guide into the trees and blasted down to the bottom.

When we emerged from the trees, I was worried to see that my fiancée wasn’t anywhere to be seen on the piste. She wouldn’t have gone past us already right? After 5 minutes had passed and all I had seen or heard was what I thought was a yelp coming from the tree line I started to get really worried. Yelling her name didn’t receive any reply and we were about ready to take the two chairs back to the top and search for her when, out of nowhere, we spotted her coming down through the trees, skiing like a pro.

From then on, the day went swimmingly – she had a great time on the piste and I pushed my limits in the trees, with things getting a little gnarly in a couple of places when I nearly skied off a cliff and when I did get stuck after skiing into a small gully. By the end of the day, my legs were shot and we decided to take the groomers back to the van and call it a day – it was 3pm already after all.

Incredible powder at Rusutsu

If you’re in the area, then you should not miss out on skiing in Rusutsu. If we went back there, I would want to spend some more time in this resort – as magical as Disney for me – but I highly recommend taking a guide at least on the first day; not only was I stopped from skiing off of the top of a sizable cliff but the guide also warned a number of times about not taking certain lines down through the trees as it would lead to long hike outs from places you didn’t want to be. Even after a fairly dry week though, Rusutsu offered plenty of fresh tracks and was much quieter than the Niseko resorts.

Our last evening and we had finally managed to book the BBQ restaurant without paying extra for it. I really needed this after a tough day on the slopes so enjoyed the tasty meats and tried to make up for all the nights we hadn’t eaten there.

Day 6

Thanks to our prime location on the outskirts of Annupuri, most of our last day revolved around getting the skies back to Grand Hirafu and then catching the bus back to Annupuri in time for the coach to the airport at 3pm, which also didn’t leave from our hotel.

Despite a day of tricky maneuvers, we did manage to grab a few runs over at Hirafu resort but snow conditions were not that great – the lack of fresh powder meant the trails were pretty bumpy and the pistes were all groomed; definitely not equipped properly with the Soul 7s and definitely not enough time to switch them out for the day (you can notice little things about the lack of development in Niseko compared to major resorts like Whistler – there were no on-mountain ski exchange centres here; only down in the village).

Yotei popped out to say goodbye
At least the cloud lifted to present us with a rare view of the Yotai volcano, often referred to as Hokkaido’s Fuji. What a great way to end our trip and we were both sad that we wouldn’t be getting up for skiing in the morning. Sat on the flight home, I even began to wonder if I would miss searching my meals for surprise octopus… Until I thought I found some in my chicken roulette.

Day 1

Our first night in Tokyo was just a stop over after the 10 hour flight from Moscow on our way down to Kyoto. After navigating our way through picking up our JR passes (easier than we thought) and catching the Narita Express followed by the Yamanote Line to our stop in Shimbashi (pretty sure we just got lucky there) we finally found our first hotel – the Sunroute Shimbashi (http://www.booking.com/hotel/jp/hotelsunrouteshinbashi.html?aid=1223809&no_rooms=1&group_adults=2&room1=A%2CA); not sure we would have made it had I not stopped at Tokyo station to buy a sim card!

Sim cards in Japan are a funny beast – I’d managed to buy my first one in a coffee shop in the station from a person that didn’t really speak a word of English but it seemed from the broken instructions I’d received that the sim card would only provide me with internet access – no phone calls or SMS. Bit weird but whatever – the main purpose was clearly Google maps and live streaming the weirdest NYE countdown I’d ever seen!

Our hotel room was as close to a capsule hotel as you could get without it being a capsule hotel. The bed touched each of three walls (and was barely big enough for one person, let alone two) and there was definitely no room to open a suitcase – you could just about access half of it at a time if you were careful.

No time to lounge around in the room though – we had booked tickets for our first stop on the tour of Tokyo’s craziest spots; Robot Restaurant. Another trip on the Yamanote line and we were in Shinjuku heading up to the red light district where this infamous restaurant/show was situated. We had heard that some $140m had been spent doing the place up with over the top décor and larger than life robots and once we were inside it was obvious that the rumours could well be true. It was at the entrance we saw our first huge queue, an art the Japanese seem to have mastered (though this one was filled with unprepared westerners), for payments to be made by credit card. Thankfully, I’d heard about the difficulties of paying by card in Japan and had gotten plenty of Yen at the Seven Eleven in the airport.

The show was just downright weird. A bombardment of flashing lights and mechanical monstrosities, together with scantily clad performers and half thought out plot lines involving battles between ancient forest dwellers and alien robot invaders; or at least that’s what I gathered. You can enjoy the video in full 360 degrees recorded on my new Nikon Key Mission 360 – an excellent Christmas present.

At regular intervals the show was stopped for the staff to upsell bento boxes and alcoholic beverages, though I’m pretty certain most of the already half shot crowd didn’t need another drink… It was amazing that most people seemed unable to hold their bladder for more than 20 minutes, let alone the entire one-hour show.

As it was Christmas eve, we were treated to a very special performance, ending in robot Santa Claus gifting a poor flower seller with a special song and dance from various other robots/performers. Overall the experience was a little touristy (I’m not sure there were many locals in attendance, if any) but a fun night out and I would recommend it to anyone with time in Tokyo. I’d just suggest to eat nearby either before or after the show.

Speaking of which, we rounded off the evening with the best katsu I’ve ever had (and that holds true having spent a further couple of weeks sampling it in various spots throughout Japan). This was in Katsukura in Shinjuku, tucked away on the top floor of a shopping mall (a common place to find nice restaurants throughout Japan, despite the usual connotations which come with shopping mall food courts in other parts of the world). Here, you grind your own sesame seeds with a pestle and mortar and then add curry sauce until you have your desired consistency. The pork was just incredible, deep fried until crispy but with the pork inside so tender. Apparently, they reckoned this was a very healthy meal. To me it seemed like the Japanese equivalent of a battered mars bar but if this is health food then sign me up!

Grinding my sesame seeds at Katsukura
Day 2

Our second day in Tokyo was after the Kyoto portion of our trip. This was to be our induction into modern Tokyo; a stark contrast to the traditional Japan we had seen in Kyoto. Our hotel for the rest of our Tokyo trip was the APA hotel in Shinjuku Kabukicho (http://www.booking.com/hotel/jp/apa-hotel-shinjuku-kabukicho-tower.html?aid=1223809&no_rooms=1&group_adults=2&room1=A%2CA); the same red light district where Robot Restaurant is located and around the same size of room as in Shimbashi.

After opting for a lie-in instead of getting up for the Tsukiji fish market, we started our day in Harajuku; unfortunately not on a Sunday so we would likely miss the famed Harajuku girls. However, fresh off the JR we were immediately treated with some Japanese craziness; they were filming for a TV show at the Abema Studio just over the road which for some reason involved two girls putting on goggles, grabbing one end of what looked like a resistance band in each of their mouths and then pulling their heads back until one of them lost grip and the band slapped the other one in the face. I’m not sure what exactly the purpose of this was but I guess it was in line with the theme of such shows as Takeshi’s castle…

Unfortunately, you were only allowed to stand on the pavement and watch the filming with a special ticket so we were soon ushered along and headed deeper into Harajuku. The streets were lined with craziness; all sorts of weird shops ranging from goth outfits to anime inspired attire, there were even a few people dressed up despite it being a Thursday afternoon. We decided we needed a quick respite from the crowds and headed into the Rainforest Cat Café, with its unique “Harajuku Bengal Cats”.

Another experience which is apparently popular in Japan but seemed to be full of tourists, the cats were definitely impressive with their patterned fur but without anywhere to really sit and relax we didn’t stay too long – the whole place felt a little bit awkward.
A regular afternoon in Harajuku
By this point, we were getting pretty hungry and decided we would try and go to one of the restaurants nearby or perhaps grab some street food. It quickly became apparent that everyone in Tokyo had decided the exact same thing at that exact moment, except everyone else was prepared to wait in line for an hour to then get their noodles. The streets were lined with queue after queue for what looked like distinctly average restaurants and food stands. Not having any of it, we managed to find the only café that had free seats – some sort of coffee shop. Within 10 minutes of being seated, there was also a huge queue outside the door – guess we were trend setters.

Our next destination was Shibuya, to see the huge crossing and the statue of Hachiko, the loyal dog that waited for more than nine years for Richard Gear to come back for him (or something along those lines). The crossing was certainly impressive, turning from a busy intersection to a pedestrian thoroughfare in a matter of seconds – the best vantage point we could find was from the JR station as all the malls we went in seemed to have no windows. I guess to keep tourists like us out!

After exhausting ourselves in the malls, it was time for the next stop in Akihabara; a district famed for its electronic stores, anime shops and video game emporiums. And maid cafes. We decided to check out a couple of the anime shops to see if we could find some cool costumes for next Halloween, the 5 storey Mandare complex and ACOS. Mandare seemed to be more geared towards action figure collectors (but not your usual seven year old kids) and I was disappointed to see most of my childhood toys in huge glass display cases with hefty price tags attached to them. Why did I open the boxes when I was a kid? And why did I sell them on the carboot for a pound a piece? Most of my trip to Japan could have been paid for by my used toys by the looks of things…

ACOS definitely had more costumes but nothing we recognized. Clearly our anime game wasn’t up to scratch so we decided to skip the Halloween shopping and head for a sit down in one of the maid cafes. We hadn’t heard a lot about these before we came but I had quickly looked up Akihabara online and we saw that this was quite a popular attraction. We picked Maidreamin’, possibly not the best choice as they also charged a 500 Yen cover, but good enough to get an insight into what on earth a maid café is.

Things were immediately pretty nuts inside and you can see why photography was prohibited – I’m pretty sure the Japanese businessman which paid for some sort of cocktail which required him to stand up on the stage and do a little dance ending with some sort of weird twerking wouldn’t want photos landing on his bosses’ desk in the morning (at least not unless he had paid the 500 Yen fee for his portrait to be memoralised in a polaroid).

The only photo I managed to get of the maid cafe 
Reading through the menu, I decided to pass on the “holy water collected from the foot of a 38,600 foot tree in the dreamland by the maids” (what the hell are these people on?!) and opted for the “maid shaken” fries and a couple of drinks. In order to make our order, we had been instructed that we needed to “meow” (were we in the maid café or the cat café now?) and on the third attempt we managed to catch the attention of one of the maids (much to the delight of some of the locals who were in stitches). Things only got worse when both receipt of the drinks and then the fries required us to recant some sort of mantra in Japanese (I hope this wasn’t some sort of devil worship cult…). This was by far and away the most bizarre experience of the day and judging by the clientele, the most Japanese.

Next, we headed for a brief peek at Gundam Café (again, not a show I have any experience with so we quickly moved on) and then to the huge Yodobashi electronics store. After quickly determining that camera accessories were no cheaper than in Moscow, we decided to join the throngs of Japanese people in the massage chair department – sampling various chairs which we had no intention of ever purchasing. After an hour of experimenting with various chairs and settings, we decided that they were all in fact forms of medieval torture as opposed to relaxing and decided it was time for our final stop of the day.

We jumped in a taxi and headed to Tokyo Tower; an impressive replica of the Eiffel tower which looks particularly impressive lit up at night. We then had a stroll towards Tsurutontan, an udon restaurant in Roppongi which had come highly recommended. On the way, we were lapped a couple of times by real life Mario karts – an activity we had strongly considered but unfortunately didn’t have the time for. It did look like great fun though; dressing up as Mario and driving a go kart arounds the streets of Tokyo!

Once at the restaurant, we had to queue about 30 minutes to get a table (seemingly nothing by Japanese standards) but we decided that it would be worth the wait. Half-starved, I decided that I needed one and a half portions of udon in my dish (why not when up to three times the portion size is included for free?!) and ordered the udon with pork cutlet curry. What could be better than noodles and katsu! I immediately regretted my decision to order extra noodles when the steaming hot bowl arrived – it was probably large enough to bathe a small child in and clearly one portion would have been more than enough. I slurped and slurped my way through the delicious noodles, thankful for the privacy screen between me and our neighbours, and then slowly walked/rolled back to the JR station to catch the train home, exhausted but satisfied.

Giant bowl of noodles!

Already tired from a long day, we decided that we wouldn’t be making it up in time for Tsukiji fish market (are you catching a theme here) so we decided to continue our day of craziness by booking in for an hour of karaoke. After 20 minutes of figuring out what to do with the machine, we bellowed out some of the English songs before being called to politely remind us that our time was up. On the way out, we figured out where the included drinks were (oh well, maybe next time) and walked just over the square to our conveniently located hotel.

Day 3

This time we were leaving Tokyo for the day to head to Lake Kawaguchi; if we were lucky and the skies were clear we would get a view of the imposing Mount Fuji (like Fujifilm, not Fiji like the island as my fiancée had to keep reminding me). Deciding to make the most of our expiring JR passes we would be doing the trip by train, heading first to Otsuki and then on to Lake Kawaguchi on a non-JR train.

The journey was surprisingly easy and took just under a couple of hours; we were lucky with the train timings coming out of Shinjuku, and as we drew near we were greeted with impressive views of a cloud free Fuji. We bumbled our way out of the station and onto a bus which we were assured went to the north shore of the lake where the best views were to be found. The bus was packed and I couldn’t tell you what line it was but after about 40 minutes we finally reached the last stop (where everyone seemed to be headed) and sure enough the views of the mountain across the lake were very impressive; worth the two trains and a bus it took to get there.

Mt Fuji in the background

Having skipped breakfast in favour of jumping on a train, we were getting somewhat peckish so decided to check out another noodle haunt – this time featuring the famous flat noodles from the region. I had picked out Houtou Foudou restaurant right next to the train station so that should be easy for us to get back to right?! We caught a different bus back than the one that took us (seems they all go the same route) and jumped off at what I thought was the station, along with a bunch of other people. We followed them into a shop and bought some souvenirs (cookies and sweets) and then headed outside to find the restaurant. Unfortunately, I had messed up, we were in fact 2k away from the train station (don’t know what had happened) and so we set off walking in search of our noodle restaurant. On the verge of collapsing, we tucked into the souvenir sweets – milk rice balls never tasted so good. After walking through a bunch of back alleys and over a little hill we finally made it back to the noodle restaurant and were lucky to find a free table without partaking in a queue!

The noodles were flavourful but I wasn’t as big a fan as I had been of the udon the night before; there was a distinct lack of meat in the cauldron like pot, in particular tasty pork cutlet, but the vegetable noodle soup was tasty nonetheless.

More giant noodles!

Once again stuffed, we made it just on time for the next train and the long ride back to Tokyo. This seemed like a brilliant time to try and arrange a sushi restaurant for that evening (even though we were finally planning to head to Tsukiji market the next morning) and so I set about calling a few restaurants which we had picked out. At first, we were not very lucky, as most of the restaurants were either already closed for the holidays or were fully booked for that evening. Eventually though we got lucky with a booking at Tsugu Sushimasa, renowned for its interesting vinegar used on the rice which dates back to the Edo period.

When we eventually found the restaurant in a side alley, we were surprised at how small the place was – just 10 chairs at the counter. The other 8 were filled with locals and we immediately got the impression that we were encroaching on a private party. The staff greeted us cheerfully though and explained once again that we would be having the Chef’s omakase menu (I think this was mainly due to a lack of an English menu and lack of English speakers to translate the menu for us – this would be another Japanese immersion experience).

It quickly became clear that everyone there knew the chef personally and were all regulars. How had a couple of foreigners wandered in here? Not long into the meal though, the couple next to us started to help the chef to translate the names of some of the dishes to us and we got chatting with them. A very nice local couple, they were laughing at how we had found the restaurant on a food blog and were amazed (and very amused) by our plans for New Year’s Eve – they said we were very Japanese! We were also informed that Tsukiji market would be closed in the morning, the first day of the new year’s holidays, and wouldn’t be open again until after we left for Niseko. Whoops!

We enjoyed a great meal though, with very few dishes we weren’t keen on (we aren’t big fans of shellfish sushi). The cured octopus was very impressive, we couldn’t believe how tender it was, and by the time we finished the sushi courses we were Zuma level stuffed! The couple on our other side had clearly had a bit more to drink and the man found the pair of us particularly amusing. He then preceded to hit on me in front of his wife with gradually more aggressive phrases, translated by our new friends on the other side, from “you’re the most attractive foreigner I’ve ever seen”, to “if I were a girl I would sleep with you” and then “I’m not sure I should translate that”. Deciding this was probably the best point to call it a night, we traded numbers with our new friends (not the drunk guy) and parted ways, heading back to Shinjuku for another round of karaoke (this time with sugar filled luminous free drinks!), as we no longer needed to be up early for the market.

Day 4

NYE – we had booked tickets for the countdown at Hanayashiki amusement park (apparently a very funny and very Japanese experience according to our friends from the night before) and decided we would visit the imperial palace beforehand, followed by Joypolis to get our fix of Sega filled fun.

Unfortunately, the East Gardens were also closed for the holidays but we walked around the outskirts of the palace which were certainly impressive and got some cool shots whilst enjoying a morning stroll.

Changing of the guards at one of the gates of the Imperial Palace

Then we hopped on the automated train to Odaibo island for Joypolis, enjoying the views of the rainbow bridge on the way over. We were surprised at how busy Joypolis was and decided we would just have to embrace the queues like the locals did in order to do any of the attractions. We soon found ourselves in a 40-minute queue for a virtual reality horror show about a possessed doll, which was damned scary even if the story was only in Japanese.

After queuing for a few more attractions we decided that it was time to head to Asakusa in order to have a look around the Senso-Ji temple, before heading to the more traditional amusement park. By the time we made it to the temple it was already 8:30pm and the night market was in full swing – selling various local delicacies. We sampled a few different dishes, from grilled pork on a stick to unknown mixtures of egg, noodles and some sort of batter (which also managed to house some surprise octopus, as usual), all while wandering around the grounds of the temple.

As we decided to start heading towards the amusement park, we noticed the first of the new year temple goers starting to que up – ready to visit the temple as soon as midnight passed. Midnight. Three hours away. Queuing. I’m not talking about queuing up for your new iPhone for two days outside the apple store; with a tent, sleeping bag, deck chair and enough emergency batteries to keep you live streaming your ‘epic experience’ for half a year. Just stood there, no food, no drinks, queuing. The Chinese may have mastered the art of war but it is the Japanese who have perfected the art of waiting around for shit to happen.

When we arrived in the amusement park, I couldn’t believe that the place was still operating. We had been expecting something less modern than Joypolis but the place looked like it had been closed for the last 30 years and had just been revived for one night only. We could now see why the couple from the night before had found our plans so amusing. We enjoyed a couple of the rides early on in the evening but the queues soon became too ridiculous to contemplate. Waiting in line half way around the park for a 1-minute ride on an overhead tramway didn’t really seem worth it. We also weren’t that keen on taking a seat for the countdown show more than 2 hours in advance, like a lot of the clientele had decided to do…

Instead, we headed for the cork gun shooting stand and wowed the locals with my skills, knocking off prize after prize as my fiancée called out what she wanted and spotted where the corks were flying. We probably managed to get at least half of our money back in prizes… After winning another couple of ‘grand prizes’ on the ring toss we decided to head over to the countdown show and find a seat, not sure what to expect from a Japanese stand-up comedy countdown. Whilst waiting for the show to start, the crowd were entertained by at least three crashes on the overhead tramway – Smiler doesn’t have anything on this place!

Well, I certainly couldn’t have guessed what the show would hold but it was the strangest countdown we have ever witnessed, the ‘highlight’ being a large half naked Japanese man pulling off 10 layers of nappies for the countdown. Thoroughly disturbed, we decided to head back to our hotel via Senso-Ji temple; hoping to see well-wishers paying their respects for the new year.

Complete madness - the cast of the countdown show

If we thought we had witnessed queues so far, we were so wrong. This was the queue to end all queues. Those who had stood there from 9pm clearly knew what they were doing. The queue was now 10 people across and stretched back well beyond the metro station (more than half a kilometer away). We had never seen anything like it. Deciding not to spend the next 5 hours of our life in the queue, we started the long slog back to Shinjuku.

Near the front of the queue at Senso-Ji
Day 5

Our final day in Tokyo and, in keeping with our traditional New Year’s activities, it was time for Disney! Luckily, the Disney Resort is one of the few things open on the 1 January in Tokyo and we decided to mix things up with a trip to Disney Sea for a change. We were a little late up in the morning so by the time we arrived in the park, it was already heaving.

Clearly the well-wishers had finished up at Senso-Ji and had now joined various queues throughout the park. All of the big rides featured queues in excess of 2 hours and most of the Fast Pass times were already 5 hours away. Disaster! Even the queues for snacks looked like they would take about 40 minutes; I wouldn’t normally queue that long for space mountain.

We managed to get a couple of fast pass rides in on some of the less popular attractions and thought we would go and see a few of the shows – a safe bet normally when the parks get busy. But not in Japan! Shows were already completely full 30 minutes before the scheduled start time and a queue would already be forming for the next show (more than 2 hours away). People here were just nuts!

Unfortunately, the day was almost over already when we realized we had missed a trick on the fast passes. Unlike every other Disney park we had been to, the Tokyo ones allow you to collect multiple fast passes for different rides at the same time! We had clearly missed out here and it was too little too late, as most of the rides had already finished fast pass ticketing.

Cool scenery at Disney Sea

Despite the queues, we still managed to have a magical day and enjoyed looking around the park, which was particularly impressive with its active volcano and huge cruise liner, and trying on various amusing hats in the stores.

After the park we headed home for an early night as we would be catching a very early flight in the morning to get to the final leg of our journey – Niseko – to hopefully find some of the legendary Japow!
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