22 November 2016

Exploring Hokkaido: Otaru

Otaru is a lovely coastal town in Hokkaido, and an easy day trip if you're located in or visiting the Niseko area. It's not huge so it's the perfect place to visit for a just a day or two. I've been a handful of times, and I keep going back. I suppose for me, there are a couple of things that I really like about Otaru. I love being by the sea, and being able to walk right up to the edge of the island and take in the view. There's something really calming and restorative about looking out at the water, even more so when you're spending a lot of time in the mountains here, where everything turns completely white for a good few months of the year. The second reason I keep going back to Otaru is because it's a really great place to go on a food crawl. There are lots of places to eat and drink, especially if you love fresh seafood. Below are a few of my favourite places to visit in Otaru.

Sankaku Market
This is a great place to start your trip to Otaru, because it's right next to the station. Exit Otaru station, turn left, head up some stairs and you'll soon see the entrance to the covered Sankaku Market. It's predominantly a fish market, but some shops sell other Otaru and Hokkaido delicacies as well. Even if you're not planning on buying anything, it's a great place to wander around and take pictures, as there are lots of odd-looking things on sale: everything from fish cheeks to live clams that occasionally squirt water at you! 

There are lots of dried seafood products for sale too, which are ideal for tourists due to the relatively long shelf-life. I've bought the dried salmon and dried scallops before, both of which are delicious as beer snacks, but you can also get more creative and use them in cooking. If you want to buy something fresh (for example a live crab) a lot of the traders have restaurants opposite their stalls where they can cook whatever you've bought for you.

I usually eat at one of the restaurants that serves seafood donburi. The best one is about halfway down the market, on the corner of where the public toilets are (doesn't sound like the best location for a restaurant, I know). This place is always really busy, but you can write your name on the list first and then wander around the market until they have a table ready for you. You can choose whichever seafood toppings you like for the donburi. Often they have a few daily specials as well. I recommend having a late breakfast / early lunch here and putting your name down by 11.30am. Often they stop taking reservations later during the service, or sell out of certain popular items (such as uni, sea urchin).

The Sea
If you keep walking downhill straight out of the station, you eventually come to the port, where you can look out over Ishikari Bay. There's nothing down here apart for a parking lot and a government building, but I always wonder why there isn't a hotel here as the view from a few floors up would surely be spectacular on a clear day.

I just like to spend a few moments here, take in the view, enjoy the fresh sea air and of course take a few photos!

The Canal
The canal is another really attractive part of Otaru. During the winter months the waterside is also illuminated, making it even more beautiful after dark. You can take a cruise down the canal on a boat. On the side of the canal, there are lots of old stone warehouses and Victorian lamps, giving you a sense of what the town looked like in past times.

Sakaimachi Street
This attractive shopping street is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs, or simply admire the local products. Otaru is well-known for glass-blowing, and many of the shops sell gorgeous little figurines. Music boxes are also produced in Otaru (one of many of the city's European influences) and you can marvel at these cute little boxes, each of which plays a different tune, which can be anything from classical music to the latest pop song.

Towards the end of the Sakaimachi street you can find two LeTAO shops, one opposite the other. LeTAO is a famous Hokkaido brand whose shops are a sweet-lovers' paradise, selling everything from cheesecakes to chocolate truffles. The shops are usually pretty generous with samples too! On my last visit I managed to try their Niagara Chocolate (grape flavour white chocolate), Royal Montagne (chocolate truffle) and Premier Maalu (crunchy wheat chocolate) all for free. After a few hours of wandering around Otaru, I like to sit in the LeTAO cafe on the top floor of the main shop, for coffee and cake. If you want to go all out, you can sample three of their famous cheesecakes in one plate. If you try just one cheesecake, make sure it's the Double Fromage: the base is a rich baked cheesecake, and the top layer is a smooth fresh cheesecake.

Otaru Brewery
This beer hall with on-site microbrewery is a great place to finish your day in Otaru. You can sample the authentic German-style beers (pilsner, white beer, dark beer) and enjoy a picturesque canal-side view. The quality of the beers here is really good, as they use organic ingredients imported from Germany alongside the high-quality Otaru water. Prost and Kampai!

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08 November 2016

PHOTO BLOG: Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium

After recently posting my Okinawa Top 10, it's now time to take a more in-depth look at some of the highlights of my summer in Okinawa. Visiting Churaumi Aquarium in Ocean Expo Park (approx. 90km north of Naha) was undoubtedly one of my favourite experiences. It's one of the world's biggest aquariums, with a main tank so large that it can fit not just one but two huge whale sharks (plus manta rays and other fish). The aquarium is an incredible showcase for the marine life that lives in the coral reefs surrounding the islands, as well as species found in deeper waters. The waters surrounding Okinawa are said to be home to a diversity of species on par with that found in the Great Barrier Reef, and one visit to the aquarium certainly confirms this.

What really struck me when I visited the aquarium was the beauty of the variety of fish and other marine life... even the slightly more odd-looking fish are beautiful in their own way. The photos below give an insight into how diverse the marine life housed in the aquarium is. The photos are divided up by the three different themed areas found in the aquarium.

Journey to a Coral Reef
The aquarium's coral reef tank has no roof, allowing natural light to illuminate the coral and the fish inhibiting the reef. The corals inside have taken over 10 years to cultivate.

The coral reef itself is stunning, even without any fish

Fugu / Blowfish

Parrot fish


Butterfly fish



Garden eels


Journey to the Kuroshio
This section of the aquarium houses the main feature: a tank with 7,500 cubic metres of water, which is home to the 8.6m long whale sharks, manta rays and other fish. There is also a shark tank, with an accompanying exhibition which aims to contradict the commonly-held notion that all sharks are blood-thirsty, dangerous animals.

The huge main tank at the aquarium

Manta ray

Whale shark

The shark tank

Journey into the Deep Sea
This area contains marine life that has been collected from more than 200m below sea level. You can observe more than 70 rare species, including unusual species that glow in the dark.

Rare deep water fish, pristigenys meyeri

Squat lobster

Corals living in the deep sea

Coral that glows with reflected infra red light

Churaumi Aquarium is one of Okinawa's top attractions and a must-visit for anyone with an interest in marine life or wildlife/nature in general. Because it is so popular, I recommend arriving as soon as it opens in the morning to stand a chance of beating the crowds. You can spend the rest of the day exploring the other sights in Ocean Expo ParkAfter a visit to this aquarium, you'll surely want to experience snorkelling or scuba diving in Okinawa to visit the coral reefs and get even closer to this incredible marine life!

03 November 2016

How to do a ski season in Japan

As I am now working my second ski season in Japan, I thought I would write a post giving some pointers for anyone who would like to do the same. Whether you've just finished university or are looking to take a career break, working a ski season in Japan is a great opportunity to allow you to spend time in this incredible country. Maybe you're not even a skier or snowboarder, but want to find a way to spend time in Japan. If teaching English isn't up your street, then working in a ski resort is the second-best option for those who don't speak Japanese.

There are many reasons why I think working a ski season in Japan is a better option than going for the obvious locations, like the Alps. Firstly, if you really love riding powder (who doesn't?), then Hokkaido in northern Japan is guaranteed to satisfy your needs year after year. As snowfall becomes less reliable in the Alps (and indeed elsewhere internationally), Hokkaido is a great place to come if you want to make the most of your season. Secondly, coming to Japan gives you the opportunity to have an incredible experience in a very different culture, if like me you come from a western background. Admittedly, some of the resorts are not authentically Japanese due to all the foreign seasonal staff, but you can nonetheless have lots of Japanese experiences (onsen, karaoke, traditional food), and of course you are perfectly placed to travel around the rest of the country (or indeed do a more extensive trip around parts of Asia) once the snow melts.

On a blue sky day you get an amazing view of Mount Yohtei from the slopes in Niseko

Working Holiday Visa
The key to an extended stay in Japan is to obtain a Working Holiday Visa. If you have a UK passport (or a passport from one of these countries) and are aged 30 or under, you can apply for a Working Holiday Visa from the Japanese embassy. This visa is aimed to give young people the chance to go to Japan, primarily to travel and sight-see, but with permission to work in order to fund your extended holiday. 

I believe there are only two places you can apply for the visa in the UK: at the Japanese Embassy in London or the one in Edinburgh, so if you are not located in one of those cities then unfortunately it can be a costly and time-consuming effort to make these applications, as you have to do it in person. To take to the embassy to make your application, you must have:

  • Valid UK passport
  • A completed visa application (available here)
  • A passport photo
  • Your CV
  • Outline of intended activities
  • Written reason for applying for Working Holiday Visa

Your outline of intended activities is essentially just your travel itinerary for the duration of your Working Holiday Visa. Looking back at the one I wrote, I mentioned the fact that I already had a job secured in Japan. In hindsight it would have been better not to reveal this (as I mentioned earlier, the primary purpose of the visa is for a holiday). Luckily they still offered me the visa.

Your reason for applying is just a personal statement explaining your desire to spend time in Japan. My statement focused on my long-standing interest in the country, my engagement in it so far (reading books, meeting Japanese friends, studying Japanese art, short trips to the country) and why I wanted to spend more time there (explore the beautiful landscape, eat amazing food).

After submitting your documents they will ask you to return to the embassy at a later date (usually around a week later). They will also tell you how much money to bring to pay for the visa should your application have been successful. 

Hokkaido is famous for its hot springs

Finding a Job
I knew that I wanted to work at the Niseko United resort in Hokkaido, so my job-hunting was specific to this. Lots of the companies in the area (hotels, accommodation providers, shops, restaurants) have English websites (and Facebook pages / other social media channels) where they will advertise seasonal positions. Researching the kinds of companies located in the area and approaching them directly is a good way of finding a job.

I would recommend the Kutchannel and Experience Niseko websites, both of which list local jobs. Each year there is also a Facebook group for Niseko Winter Jobs, which you can join and either advertise that you're looking for work and/or look at employers' job postings.

For jobs elsewhere in Japan, the Gaijinpot website is a great resource. They also have a section called 'No Nihongo' which shows jobs that don't require Japanese language skills.

The good thing about applying for a job at a ski resort is that employers generally don't require that you have previous experience in the same field. I'd never worked in hospitality before I came to Japan, nor had many of my seasonal colleagues. As long as you can show that you have transferable skills that are relevant (think customer service, being able to prioritise a heavy workload, working well under pressure) you stand a good chance of finding a job. Showing that you are hard-working, reliable, and will have good team spirit helps too!

A ski season in Niseko also allows you to experience Australian 'culture'

Once you've got your visa and your job offer, it's time to make all those final preparations.

Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is a must, particularly when you're working a ski season. If you're skiing and snowboarding, unfortunately there is always the chance that you may get injured. I know a handful of people who broke something or other last year. Touch wood it won't happen to you, but if it does you need to be covered. There are plenty of options for travel insurance, even those specific for working holidays. Make sure you choose a policy with winter sports cover. I went with Outbacker Insurance.

Purchasing a long haul flight ticket at the last minute can be pricey, and if you're buying a one-way ticket it can be just as expensive as a return. Skyscanner is a great place to find the cheapest option. The Secret Flying website also offers cheap flight deals. If you don't mind stopping over at one or two locations, the flight is often cheaper. You could even decide to stop off at a couple of places on the way and make a holiday of it. Or if you're really adventurous you could travel the whole way by land and sea like this guy.

Hokkaido has lots of day-trip worthy places to visit, such as Otaru

Another thing you have to consider when booking flights is how much baggage you are taking with you. It's hard to travel light when doing a ski season, particularly if you have all your own gear and equipment. Swiss Air are one of the few airlines that offer free ski carriage. If you are doing some travelling along the way, you may wish to ship your gear to the ski resort in advance. Luggage Forward is one of the sevices that offer this. You can also ship your luggage upon arrival in Japan. Use the Takkyubin service to ship your bags to the ski resort while you enjoy some time travelling in Japan.

When it comes to winter apparel, you may wish to buy some of this upon arrival in Japan so that you don't have to travel with as much luggage. Although it is certainly possible to buy clothes in the ski resort, be advised that this comes at resort prices. Even though you may get a discount because you work at the resort, it still is at a higher cost than normal. It would be a better idea to buy winter gear in a major city where you can get a better price.

If you are taller, larger or have big feet, you may struggle to find what you need in Japan, as sizes are much smaller here. In which case, you may wish to bring any essential items with you. Particularly if you are living in rural Japan, the size (and indeed style) selection is not so great. I struggled to find a new pair of sandals this summer for my UK size 7 feet!

In terms of your ski/snowboard, if you arrive early enough in the season, you can often buy last season's ex-rental gear for a good price. Last year I bought a pair of ex-rental skis, and this year I'll probably buy an ex-rental snowboard. Buying at the resort saves you the expense of paying for oversized luggage on the flight, and of course schlepping it from the airport to the resort.

One Last Thing
Come with an open mind, willingness to try new things and immerse yourself in the culture and you are guaranteed to have an amazing experience.

Snow has already started falling in Niseko, but there are still plenty of seasonal vacancies available - so live the dream and get down here! See you on the slopes!

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