Perhaps it’s silly, but we have been on a quest to capture all of the “Japan Geography Series” mugs. We attempt to live a fairly minimalist lifestyle, but we do have our weaknesses and for whatever reason Japan Starbucks mugs fall into that category.  Since we are on the subject of weaknesses, we might as well come clean…we don’t miss an opportunity to ski either! Although the first half of January 2019 had been full of trips to Nagasaki, Fukuoka, and Hiroshima, we couldn’t let the long weekend slip by without getting out to explore Sendai and SKI with the famous “Snow Monsters” of Zao Onsen. Enter our Martin Luther King Jr. weekend road trip!

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[ D A Y • 1 ] Zushi → Sendai: Aoba Castle Ruins → Zuihōden Mausoleum → Daikannon Statue → Panorama Terrace at AER Building → Sunmall Ichibancho

Sendai isn’t far for us, but with only a long weekend to play we needed to make sure we had an entire Saturday free to explore. Consequently, we slid out of bed bright and early and were on the road heading north by 0630. Despite the pain of getting up early on a weekend, the drive from Yokosuka isn’t too terribly bad as we have discovered that mustering up the enthusiasm to roll out of bed *almost* always equates to the kids sleeping the entire drive. Thankfully this held true for the 5+ hour drive to Zao as well. Isn’t that the best kind of road trip? Sleeping littles – pure bliss.

We pulled into the parking lot located on Mount Aoba at 1145 and got out of the car. Boy, it’s a bit chilly! The kids, well-rested, had a lot of pent up energy, so an outdoor stop was definitely needed and the castle ruins seemed to be a perfect fit. About 500 years ago, the city of Sendai was founded by Date Masamune, a feudal lord who like many powerful leaders during that time, wanted his fortress difficult to attack. Correspondingly, he placed his castle on top of a mountain.

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If you’ve been following our adventures (or perhaps dabbling in a bit of Japanese research), you’ll know that most old structures within the country have had difficulty withstanding the test of time and like many before it. Over the years, Aoba Castle endured the violent Meiji period, a gigantic fire in 1882, and deadly carpet bombing in 1945. The castle was never rebuilt after the devastating events, and as we walked the grounds, all that’s left are a few pieces of the outer walls. With this in mind, perhaps managing expectations for the kiddos is key here as there is no longer a physical castle for them to explore. “What? I thought you said we were going to a castle?”

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Since we had failed to mention this to the kids, there were certainly a few questions to answer when we pulled up. Kids are resilient, however, and the questions quickly dissolved into the joy of being free from their car seats. After meandering about (unable to read most of the signage) we took in the glorious view of the city below in the shadow of the large statue of Masamune.

Before heading back down the mountain, we stopped and visited Gokoku Shrine. Although not very old (built in 1904), the bright red shrine stands in significant contrast to the natural landscape that surrounds it and is said to be one of the “power spots” in the city.

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We buckled the kids back in (which to be frank they weren’t thrilled about) and drove the ten minutes to Zuihōden Mausoleum, Date Masamune’s very elaborate grave. Lots of cedar trees line the paths surrounding the mausoleum which symbolize the longevity of the family’s rule. Although much of the grounds are free, the main mausoleum requires a fee to enter. Even as a westerner who doesn’t fully understand the historical importance of what they are seeing, this area exudes Japan. Despite the insanity of Tokyo, the history of Kyoto, or the nightlife of Osaka, Japan will always remind us of peace and tranquility. So much of Japan is the sound of crashing ocean waves, the smell of old growth cedar trees, and the overwhelming sense of calm that comes from immersing yourself in a culture with a foundation in Zen Buddhism. That feeling permeated Sendai in a way that makes us want to go back every time it crosses our minds.

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Unsure if we had parked in an actual parking space (I thinnnnnk we had?), we decided to head back to the car and transfer to Sendai’s Daikannon Statue, one of the tallest statues in the world (a short 25 minute drive away). On our way to the statue, we needed to stop at the AEON Mall for some gloves for the kids and well, let’s just say the giant godzilla-like statue wasn’t difficult to spot from the mall parking lot. Goodness! IT. IS. MASSIVE. When we finally drove up to the statue the kids were (okay, let’s be real…we ALL were) in awe of the Japanese Buddhist Bodhisattva. I mean, she’s 100 meters tall (that’s 330 feet for our USA folks). Insane, right?

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We entered through a dragon’s mouth (which blew Miles’ mind) and found ourselves on the ground floor. Here you’ll find 33 forms of Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, as well as 12 demonic creatures. From this floor, you can take the quick trip up to the top via an elevator and marvel at the views of the mountains! Besides the views the other major highlight is the massive spiral staircase that one follows on the way down. As you make your way to the ground floor, you will pass 108 Buddhist statues. Each statue is said to represent a human characteristic, so this is your chance to pray about some of your shortcomings and hope that your call is answered.

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Itching to give the kids a bit of down time, we headed into the city at 1615 to check-in to Hotel Vista Sendai. Parking wasn’t free, but at 1,000 yen/day it didn’t break the bank either (if you’re curious, that’s pretty cheap for paid overnight parking in Japan). The room was basic and comfortable, but the location was the real star. We all enjoyed a few minutes of lounging before heading out to the AER Building for a wonderful free night time view of Sendai on the Panorama Terrace located on the 31st Floor.

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Hungry, we walked to Sukiya after. This is a great spot to note if you’re looking for fast, good, and cheap eats! With over 2,300 locations sprinkled throughout Japan you can safely say that the folks at this restaurant chain have their system down when it comes to gyudon (beef bowls). Sukiya has become a family favorite of ours since the in and out time is EXTREMELY short and when you have hangry children getting food on the table ASAP is top priority! We have literally gone from ordering our food to having it in front of us in less than 2 minutes…crazy!

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Bellies full, we took a stroll through Sunmall Ichibancho, an open walking area flanked with tons of shops and located ~1km from the AER Building. A good number of Christmas lights were still up making for a festive place to wander. Penny even found a poster for the clothing brand, Hysteric Mini. She was lucky enough to be chosen to model for their Summer 2019 catalog last fall, so any time she sees the advertisements now…well, she freaks! “It’s MY baby!!!” Oh, Penny…

Short walk back to Hotel Vista Sendai to call it for the day. Tomorrow we head to snowy town of Zao to experience our first traditional onsen! We have been building up the courage to try the traditional version of this sacred Japanese experience (swimsuits are not welcomed normally), which makes the experience a little more stressful than intended for us foreigners. Luckily our room also has a private one – just in case we chicken out!

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Aoba Castle Ruins/Gokoku Shrine:

  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: 400yen/1 hour

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Zuihōden Mausoleum (Masamune’s elaborate grave):

  • Admission: 550yen/Adult
  • Parking: Free

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Daikannon Statue:

  • Admission: 500yen
  • Parking: Free

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AER Building:

  • Hours: 1000 – 2200
  • Admission: Free
  • Directions: Take the elevator on the first floor to floor 20. Once you are on floor 20, exit and walk past the Sendai Blood Bank and then swing a left. Here hop aboard the second elevator and take it to floor 31. Viola! Free city views!

[ D A Y • 2 ] Sendai: JS Pancake Café → Miyagikyo Distillery → Zao: Zao Ropeway

It’s 0730…Good Mornin’, Sendai! Waking up in a new city never gets old for me and always seems to renew that new sense of adventure and excitement. What will we get to experience today? Continuing to be full of gratitude as we have been afforded the opportunity to see so many parts of the country.

We packed up fairly quickly with the goal of  grabbing a bite to eat and checking out a morning market before hitting the road bound for Zao. Unfortunately for us, Asaichi Market is closed on Sundays (oops!). The 100m long market looks really interesting though even with closed doors and if you’re visiting during the week you should totally stop by and give it a go. Maybe try the local dish, gyutan (beef tongue)? Drop us a line if you make it there, we’d love to hear about your experience!

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A smidge disappointed we decided to walk to commence our search for a breakfast spot. No one seemed to have a solid hankering for anything in particular, so we just opted to stroll until we found something that seemed to suit everyone’s fancy. If you’re over there thinking that a visit to JS Pancake Café was planned your 100% wrong (surprising, right?) we just stumbled upon this deliciousness on our walk (if you’re curious, the location we went to is located close to Sendai Station).

Country tunes (yes, country music, was playing!), lots of empty tables, cute placements, stickers for the kids, AND Eric Carle themed Hungry Caterpillar Pancakes?! Yes. This was our breakfast spot! I can’t imagine a more “kawaii” (super cute) breakfast.

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DSC09912-Edit-3Strolling back to Hotel Vista Sendai, we picked up the car (the hotel staff allowed us to keep our space until 1100) and left for Akiu Craft Park (~30min drive). We had read about this collection of ~6 shops mostly dedicated to wood working and thought it would be worth a look on our way out of Sendai. Well, although it did look cool; it was dead (Read: We couldn’t find a soul). Not one other person. The Internet had lead us to believe that the park was open on weekends, but perhaps it isn’t? Or maybe it was just a slow day. I guess we’ll never know…

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Miyagikyo Distillery, home to Nikka Whisky, was just a short 33 minute drive away, so we whisked away to hop aboard a tour next! Tours in Japanese (English audio guide is available for free) are conducted fairly frequently and last ~45 minutes making them short enough for littles not to get too bored and start acting wild. Reservations aren’t required and you just sign up when you arrive in the waiting area making it easy to keep your travel plans a bit fluid – a huge bonus when traveling with littles!

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Inside the waiting area there are several places to sit as well as quite a few displays about the history of the company and the process of making whisky complete with English captions!

At the end of the tour there is free sampling for adults that are at least 20 years old and who are not designated drivers. Dom appreciates a good whisky much more than I do, so we agreed for me to be the designated driver so he could partake in some Apple Wine, Rare Old Super, and Single Malt Miyagikyo goodness. Complimentary water, apple juice, tea, and soda water was available for the kids and I.

Overall, the experience was educational, the snowy grounds peaceful, and like most things in Japan immaculately well taken care of. As a bonus, we took home a bottle of Nikka’s well-known From the Barrel and one bottle of Nikka Coffey Grain (two very highly ranked Japanese whiskys) at an amazing price!

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Although it wasn’t snowing much while we were at the distillery, it didn’t take much for it to feel like we were driving into a winter wonderland as we headed closer to Zao. Holy white out!

One of the Japanese experiences that we had been missing from our Bucket List had been staying in a traditional Japanese onsen. Although we had stayed at a traditional ryokan during our springtime trip to Nagano, we did not have access to an onsen inside the resort. Prices around the Zao resort area seemed to be a bit high, so we decided perhaps we would stay a bit away (less than 30 minutes drive) from the resort area and enjoy an onsen experience at Hayamakan Ryoken located just a 75 minute drive away from the distillery.

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When we pulled up to the ryoken we were met by smiling staff who were incredibly eager to help us unload the car. Although we very much appreciated the help it was a bit overwhelming as some of the items were no longer as organized and we would have preferred to perhaps have had a bit more time to sort through things minimizing what we needed to bring into the room.

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Right away the lobby had us oozing with excitement as the decor was mid-century modern (my fav!). The area allowed for natural light to penetrate the room and the kids and I were able to sit down and enjoy a cup of hot tea while Dom checked us in.

After some Google Translating we were squared away. As we walked to our room, Dom and I kept talking about how much we loved the decor and how relaxing it all felt. Just check out this adorable reading nook!

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Not surprisingly, the kids made themselves right at home inside our traditional room. With all the moving around we’ve done recently we have gotten used to the kids asking “Is this our new home?” They’re used to the response being “No, it’s just a place to stay, so we can explore,” but we love their excitement when it comes to trying something new!

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We headed downstairs and decided to head to the city of Zao Onsen next. Compared to Nagano, Zao is a much lesser known ski destination, but it’s home to “juhyo” (ice trees) which form due to freezing wind and high levels of snow. Many lovingly refer to these natural creations as “snow monsters,” as the trees take on crazy shapes resembling the lumbering snow monsters, each one a little bit different than the next.

Since we were never able to track down English ski lessons for Miles (bummer!), we decided that the best way to experience the monsters as a family was to take the ropeway to the summit where the monsters are illuminated. Did I mention how cold it was?

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I don’t think the temperature was necessarily that low, but once you added in the insane windchill (after all the high winds and freezing rain are some of the main components that create these monsters) it was no joke! Once at the summit we took a few moments to muster up some courage and then made our way outside Jizo Sancho Station to explore the rooftop observatory area.

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Yup, that was realllllyyyy flipping’ chilly! BBRRRRRR!!! Luckily you don’t have to freeze your biscuits off outside on the rooftop the entire time to still enjoy the snowy creatures. Conveniently, there is a cafe with warm seats and warmer ramen that will most certainly taste incredible after stepping out into what feels like a snowy apocalypse. Thawing out while the snow monsters lurk outside the window was certainly an unforgettable experience!

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On our way back down from the summit the windows of the ropeway cars were completely iced over. It was a bit tough to even see out..did I mention that it was cold?

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We came back down from the ropeway and walked to a cute restaurant nearby. Everything was in Japanese including the sign, so we’ve left you the Google Pin if you’re wanting to check it out, but unfortunately we haven’t a clue on the name (sorry!). The server sat us a slightly elevated table where we were able to take off our shoes and then sit on cushions. This was perfection and my momma heart was so grateful for this traditional Japanese set-up as it allowed Penny to curl up and fall asleep. Good food, solid service, and sleeping toddler…this is what restaurant dreams are made of, yes?

A short drive back to Hotel Hayamakan to enjoy the in-room private onsen was next. Before we took our first trip to Nagano to see the snow monkeys and ski Hakuba Valley, Dom and I purchased snow chains for the van. The roads were salted, however, and we actually never even needed them. Secretly, I’d been kicking myself a bit for purchasing them as they were $$$ and were never actually ever used. My opinion regarding the necessity of snow chains changed during our trip to Zao, however, and I would highly recommend them if your vehicle does not have snow tires.  The roads in Zao are no where near as manicured as those we experienced in Nagano…probably due (to some extent) to the fact that it is less visited. Simply put, snow chains saved us multiple times from losing control.

When we arrived back at the hotel there was a small sigh of relief (Wheew! We survived!) and then we all enjoyed some time in the private onsen.

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JS Pancake Cafe:

  • Hours: 1000 – 2000
  • Admission: The menu varies vary quite a bit with The Very Hungry Caterpillar menu being a bit more expensive and only offered for a limited time. We ordered the following two things + a couple coffees and split everything. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pancake is fairly big, so plan on sharing!
    • The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pancake: 2300yen
    • Strawberry Waffles: 680yen

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Akiu Craft Park:

  • Hours: Well, we thought they were daily ~0900 – 1700, but our experience proved otherwise, so bottom line: we aren’t 100% sure.

Nikki Miyagikyo Distillery:

  • Hours: 0900 – 1130, 1230 – 1530
  • Admission: Free Tour
  • Parking: Free

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Zao Ropeway:

  • Hours: December – March: Illuminated every weekend (1700 – 2100), February: Every day
  • Admission: 2600 yen round trip for adults, child 1300 yen
  • Parking: Free

Adorable Restaurant:

  • Hours: 1800 – 2400 (last order 2330)
  • Admission: The menu has quite an extensive selection to choose from. We’ve noted what we ordered below, so that you have a general idea of pricing.
    • Yamagata Pork and Mushroom Casserole: 1100yen
    • Cast Iron Skillet Steamed Clams and Vegetables: 900yen
    • Fried Chicken (5pcs): 650yen
  • All major credit cards accepted
  • Location

[ D A Y • 3 ] Zao: Ski/Snow Day @the bottom of Yokokura Slope → Zushi

Although we all slept surprisingly well, the kids, like clockwork woke up at 0700. Like most wee ones, they just don’t get the whole “sleep-in thing.” We threw the kids in the private onsen while Dom and I packed up our belongings and cleaned-up a bit. After begging to stay in all morning, we finally coaxed them out to get dressed for breakfast…a traditional Japanese breakfast that is.

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Since we have booked a ridiculous number of accommodations on Booking.com, one of the perks that we receive is usually a discounted rate on our hotel stay in addition to breakfast usually being included. At Hotel Hayamakan this meant a traditional Japanese breakfast in the hotel’s dining area at a time that was pre-arranged at the time we checked-in.

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At 0900 we arrived in the dining area and walked into our reserved private room and soon dishes just started arriving on the table – one after the other! I’ll be honest, we didn’t know what most of them were, but they were delish (well, except those nato – fermented soybeans that we have never quite acquired a taste for)!

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Post-breakfast, we headed back to our room to collect our things and then checked out of Hayamakan Hotel, loaded up the car and away we went – bound for Zao again! We chose to park in the Zao Ropeway parking lot (like we had the previous night) as there were a few shops to inquire about ski rentals, a small hill for the kids to sled down, and an indoor spot with a couple food options. Luckily rentals weren’t too pricey (sled 1000 yen/day, Ski Package Rental 6100 yen for the entire day), however, no half day rentals were available.

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After getting our gear squared away for the day, we purchased a single ski lift pass which Dom and I were able to share. We alternated throughout the day taking turns watching Miles and Penny while the other skied the slopes nearly void of other skiers, but crowded with hundreds of snow monsters (well, at least near the top). Despite the extremely cold temperatures and constant flurries, floating through waist deep powder through the towering snow monsters was absolutely one of those bucket list Japanese experiences that we will never forget. The silence and isolation near the summit made it easy – perhaps too easy – to forget that the kids and the “on shift” parent were busy playing in the snow at the base of the mountain.

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After hundreds of snow balls and countless trips in the sled down the small hill at the bottom of Yokokura Slope the kids were toast, and admittedly we were pretty worn out as well. After one last run down the mountain (it was STILL easy to find untouched lines) we sadly said goodbye to the Juyho (snow monsters), returned our ski gear, and piled in the car for the long drive back home. After a few very cold days on the mountain, we blasted the heat and both kids passed out the minute they were buckled in. About 5.5 hours later we were back home, already pulling up the calendar to figure out when we could go back.

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Zao

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