Japan – part 3: Hakone ryokan

One of the things we really wanted to do in Japan was to spend a night at a traditional guesthouse (ryokan): eat the multi course dinners, bathe in hot springs and sleep on futons on a tatami floor. We decided to go to the Hakone area since it was an easy train ride from Tokyo and in the right direction for our trip through Japan.

Hakone is a mountainous area a couple of hours from Tokyo. The train ride to Odawara was easy, and there we connected to the Hakone transport system with our Hakone free pass. There is the so called “Hakone round course” where you are able to go around the area in a day using different means of transportation: busses, trains, ropeways and a boat. It sounds like a lot of transport changes but it was very easy. What I like about this area is that it is very easy to get around without a car since the transport options are included with the train pass.

Unfortunately, the beautiful weather we had most of the time in Tokyo vanished when we got to Hakone. The Yugiriso ryokan that we stayed at was located in Hakone-mashi very close to the lake Ashi where you are supposed to see Mount Fuji on the other side. We walked along the shoreline but we couldn’t see a thing, it was so foggy! And then it started to rain and it didn’t stop…

We were glad we stayed in a nice ryokan and enjoyed their indoor facilities such as the indoor and outdoor hot springs.

Our oom at the Yugiriso ryokan had the traditional tatami flooring and futon beds, which the staff made up for us in the evening and put away in the morning. There was also a small table where the elaborate meals were served. We stayed there for two nights and were given different dishes, most of them delicious, with lots of seafood, fish and vegetables.

After the very tasty dinner, we visited the hot springs again. They are gender separated as is traditional in Japan, and are shared with the other residents. I suppose there are ryokans where you can have your own hot spring but we were happy with our choice. It wasn’t very crowded at all so at times, we had the hot springs to ourselves. Since they were outside, we could talk softly to each other through the wooden wall that separated them. If anyone else was there, I think you are supposed to be quiet and contemplate nature. We slept like babies afterwards on the futons.

The next morning, breakfast was served in our room in the same concept as dinner, which means many small dishes in different bowls. The lady serving us was very polite. The breakfast dishes also consisted of mainly fish and vegetables. Green tea as well, of course. I enjoyed most of the dishes very much but the fermented baby eals (they looked like it anyway, probably some kind of fish) was a bit much.

Then we were off on the Hakone round course which included several means of transportation: train, cablecar, ropeway and boat! Even though the weather was absolutely horrible – very windy, foggy and rainy – we had a great day. The round course transportation worked out fine although we were lucky to catch the last boat across the lake before they cancelled them due to the fog. The boats were actually pirate themed for some reason.

The most challenging part was high up in Owakudani where it was so windy that it was actually hard to walk in the wind and the rain. The ropeway up there and down again wasn’t that bad though. Luckily, there was a big gift shop there where they sell the famous black eggs which are given their color by being cooked in sulfur ponds. There are trails to walk along to the sulfur ponds but we didn’t due to the weather, and I think they are closed some of the time because of sulfurous fumes as well.

We returned to the ryokan in the afternoon and went straight for the hot springs to warm up. We then had the same excellent dinner experience with different dishes and then even more hot springs. It was very relaxing to be at a ryokan and we were happy to have booked a two nights stay.

So, if you’re wondering whether it’s worth the price to stay at a ryokan, for us it definitely was! We chose one of the mid-priced ones which included meals in our own room (some have communal meals) and shared hot springs. It was very different from the rest of our experiences in crowded Japan and very well worth our time and money. We were a bit disappointed with the weather and lack of view but used the hot springs more than we probably would have otherwise. And had the weather been clear, I’m sure the view of the lake and mount Fuji would have been amazing.

Next stop: Kyoto!

A cool weekend at the Ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden

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In the middle of March 2019, we went to the Ice hotel in the very north of Sweden for a long weekend. It was a birthday trip for my husband and we were both so excited to see the ice hotel and spend a night surrounded by snow and ice! The weekend turned out great with lots of sun, snow, activities and northern lights!

The hotel is located in Jukkasjärvi which is a small village by the Torne river not far from the town of Kiruna and the airport. We arrived at the hotel by lunch on Friday and were very well taken care of by the great staff who showed us around the hotel compound. The sun was shining and the snow was glistening, we were so lucky with the weather! Since we live in the very south of Sweden (Malmö), we have barely seen any snow this winter so just walking around in the snow felt great.

The ice hotel

The hotel consists of several parts, most famous being the ice building which is built for every season and then melts down completely in spring. Inside, there are ice rooms and art suites, and we were to stay in one of the suites. The difference between the rooms and suites is that different artists decorate the suites every year in themes while the rooms all have the same decor. The suites are very different in style but all have a double or triple bed in them. The ice building and all ice structures around the hotel are made from ice taken from the frozen Torne river the previous year, and we saw the trucks in action. The ice blocks are stored for next season in a large warehouse.

Since the ice building is open to the public during the day, we left our luggage at the heated building which is close to the ice building. Since we were staying in an art suite, we had our own changing booth where we could store luggage and charge phones. If you’re staying in an ice room, you get a locker and access to the communal changing rooms with shower and sauna (which we didn’t use this time). If you don’t have warm clothes, don’t worry – you can use the ice hotel’s gear free of charge, everything from very warm overalls to boots and hats.

We went on a guided tour of the hotel and learned that they will be celebrating their 30th anniversary next year. Apparently it all started (or the icy part at least) when some crazy tourists saw an igloo on the frozen river and asked to spend the night there. A few reindeer hides and sleeping bags later and there you have it – success! This year the hotel has 55 frozen rooms as well as lots of heated rooms and cabins (which we stayed in for two nights as well). No matter how cold it it outside, the ice rooms have a temperature of about -5 C. In summer, you can visit the 365 part of the hotel which is open year-round and has permanent ice suites and the ice bar.

Dinner at the Old farmstead

After an initial exploration of the surrounding area – which in our case meant a very nice walk on the frozen river along the snowmobile tracks – we went to dinner in one of the restaurants, Hembygdsgården (the Old farmstead). It is located a 10 minute walk from the hotel in an old farm building in an outdoor museum setting (open in summer). We had a great dinner of fish with rainbow trout from Norrbotten, the province to the east of Lappland, and souvas, smoked reindeer with potatoes and lingonberries. Souvas is a traditional Sami dish and we had it several times in different variations during our trip. For dessert, cloudberries and vanilla ice cream, the perfect match with some sweet white wine.

Spending the night in an art suite made of snow and ice

After our walk back to the hotel, it was almost time to get ready to spend the night in the ice room. However, we had to stop by the ice bar and drink a Vargtass (lingonberry juice and vodka) in ice glasses as a nightcap. Then we went to our changing booth, got into our night gear (merino wool set and hat) and picked up our giant double sleeping bag along with some boots. We walked into the icy part and straight to our suite where the bed was waiting with mattresses, reindeer hides and pillows surrounded by the ice and snow. It was nice to get into the cozy sleeping bag and once we were there, we slept quite well.

The next morning, we were awoken by a cheery staff member with some hot lingonberry juice, and then it was time to take a quick walk back to the heated part of the hotel. We received our diploma for surviving the night in and then it was great to have hot coffee and a nice buffet for breakfast.

Feeding reindeers at the Nutti Sámi Siida

It was another beautiful sunny day in Jukkasjärvi so we spent almost all of it outside. After breakfast, we walked to the Sámi openair museum of Nutti Sámi Siida, located next to the pretty church in Jukkasjärvi and very close to the Old farmstead above so about a 10 minute walk from the hotel. It’s very easy to get around Jukkasjärvi since it consists of one main road. The Sámi museum opened at 10 am with a guided tour around the buildings. When buying the entry fee, don’t forget to buy bags of lichen (lav in Swedish) to feed the reindeers with.

After the guide had told us about the Sámi way of life during the different seasons, she gave us some instructions about visiting the reindeers and then we went inside to meet them. So cute! There were about eight or ten reindeers in the pasture, all male of different ages. They love being fed lichen and will get close to you, but they were very sweet and not at all aggressive. We stayed there for quite some time, great experience! Lichen is what they dig up from under the snow in the wild to eat in winter.

We had lunch at the Sámi museum as well, inside the wooden cot (kåta in Swedish) next to the gift shop. It was a very nice fish stew with the fish char made on the open fire. They also have coffee which is boiled in a pot on the fire (kokkaffe), and coffee cheese, which is a traditional accompaniment to the coffee in northern Sweden. It’s grilled and kind of like halloumi but not salty.

Cross country skiing

In the afternoon, we decided to go cross country skiing. The ice hotel has equipment in all sizes for hire and we spent a couple of hours on the trails around Jukkasjärvi. You can also hire snow shoes to walk around in the snow with but we had a lot of fun on the skis. The front desk can provide you with a map of the skiing trails, which are also snowmobile trails.

Snowmobile safari in search of the northern lights

Since we wanted to experience as much as possible, we had booked some activities beforehand. On Saturday night, we were picked up at the hotel by Kiruna Guidetur for a snowmobile safari in search of the northern lights, or aurora borealis. We were driven to some snowmobile garage and given overalls and boots – much needed since it was getting colder that night. Then we were given safety instructions and helmets and then hopped on our snowmobile which we shared and took turns driving and were off into the dark.

Our group consisted of about two guides and about 12 people in total. We drove in the woods and on the frozen river and lakes for a while and then stopped for a quick glance at a very weak aurora. Further on, we stopped at a wooden hut where the guides made a great dinner of souvas (smoked reindeer meat), cloudberries and coffee. The guides went outside regularly to check if there was any aurora, and suddenly there was! It was an amazing sight and experience to stand on the frozen river and see the northern lights dance across the sky in green and pink. We were very lucky to have such a great sighting!

When the aurora diminished after an hour or so, it was getting very cold (-20 C) and late so we drove back on the snowmobiles and were then dropped of at the hotel at around 11 pm. We had a warm drink in the lounge area before bed, which this time was in a heated cabin.

Dogsledding in the sun

The next morning, we had an early start with breakfast and then off to our next adventure: dog sledding! We once again used the Kiruna guidetur guides and were taken to a kennel nearby for safety instructions. There were dogs everywhere, in their cages and behind sleds, and a lot of barking since the dogs just wanted to get going.

We had our own sled with five dogs and took turns driving, which actually is more like cheering on the dogs to keep pulling since they follow the guide sled and the leader dogs. It was only a few degrees below zero and sunny, so the dogs needed to cool off in the snow every now and then. They apparently prefer colder weather with their thick fur.

We had an excellent time riding to a cabin in the woods where we were served mushroom soup and had plenty of time to play with the dogs, although they were on their leashes. They are so energetic and love to work, and very cuddly and friendly as well. On the way back, it was even hotter so we had to help the dogs to get up some steep hills by kicking the sled forward. All in all, a lovely day out and it was a lot of fun to drive the sled and interact with the dogs.

Once back at the hotel, we spent the afternoon walking the trails and the river and had coffee at the Sámi place. We also went inside the ice buildings to see the ice suites again – as guests of the hotel you can go there as many times as you like.

Five course ice menu for dinner

The Ice hotel has a main restaurant where we had dinner on Sunday evening. We had the five course ice menu with accompanying wines. Four of the dishes were served on ice blocks, which are made from the water of the frozen river. The meal was excellent! It consisted mainly of speciality foods from the Lapland area, for example reindeer fillet, Arctic bramble (åkerbär) and roe from Kalix. The wines went well with the courses. We enjoyed every bite!

Snowy morning and leaving

The next morning, we woke up to snow and clouds. We packed up and left our luggage at storage, and then went for a long walk in the snow. We brought a thermos with hot tea and some snacks and had a fika in the snow before it was time to go home after a great weekend at the Ice hotel and in Jukkasjärvi!

If you ever get the chance, just go! It’s pricey for sure, but well worth it especially if you are as lucky with the weather as we were. In my opinion, March is the perfect season to go there since the days are longer than in mid-winter and the snow is still there. The ice building of the hotel is open until mid-April but you can also visit in summer for a different experience. We were very happy with both the hotel staff and facilities and the tour company Kiruna guidetur we used!

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If you have any questions – let me know!