3. You can break up your stay in Tokyo
This was our first snow holiday outside of Hokkaido, and one thing we were thankful for was once you land in Tokyo, you’re there [there is no further need to get a connecting flight through to New Chitose, Sapporo]. Although we could have landed in Tokyo, caught the connecting Shinkansen through to Iiyama and been in Madarao just a couple of hours later, we chose to stay the night in Tokyo, and travel at our own pace the next day. It also allowed us the opportunity to explore a little bit, taking in the Ginza area which has a really cool five story toy store, the Hakuhinkan Toy Park.
The Hakuhinkan Toy Park was something to behold
Our hotel for the night was the Keikyu Ex Inn, about a 5 min walk from the Shinagawa train station. Although we looked at Air BnB, for about the same price a hotel with 24 hr reception and a concierge seemed like a better option. It ended up being perfect with plenty of nearby eateries, a convenience store and washing facilities. One word of caution. If booking via the Wotif site, make sure you know what you’re getting. As we found out, ‘twin’ on the website was incorrectly translated as ‘single’, so 2 twin beds and a twin sofa bed (plenty of room for 2 adults and 2 kids right?) was actually 2 single beds and a couch. Several hours later, after much polite negotiation, the hotel eventually provided another mattress.
The downtown Ginza area of Tokyo
4. Getting to Madarao is easy
Catching the Shinkansen the following morning was one of the highlights of the trip especially for our six year old who just LOVES trains (what 6 year old boy doesn’t?). Again, we travelled by metro rail from our hotel in Shinagawa to Tokyo, for our connecting bullet train to Iiyama, a delightful small town just a few minutes beyond Nagano.
When we got to Tokyo central station, it was rush-hour and the place was absolutely heaving. But in true Japanese style, the crowds were ordered, courteous and polite, and we slipped through the station quickly arriving at the Shinkansen ticketing desk a mere 5 minutes after exciting the metro train. It was that easy.
We got our tickets, walked the short distance and caught the escalator up to our platform. Queuing is very orderly with separate queues for individual carriages. The doors opened a few minutes before departure, leaving about 2 mins to find your seat and stow your luggage. There is room in the overhead lockers for two large suitcases and even ski bags if you can find a long enough section. We later learnt that some of the carriages have luggage compartments or like other skiiers, you can just leave your ski / snowboard bags in the compartments between carriages (not sure it’s kosher, but no one seemed too bothered).
Iiyama and the Shinkansen
The ride on the train was surprisingly smooth. The only sense we were traveling at over 250 km/h was when we passed through a tunnel or a station. Otherwise, the whole experience was just perfect. The journey took in the outskirts of Tokyo and the breath taking rural areas of central Japan, before arriving in Nagano, the host city for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games. The Hakuba mountain range – a very popular area for Australians – was clearly visible to the left of the train as we arrived at Nagano station – where incidentally, and perhaps not-surprisingly, most of the westerners got off. A short 20 minutes or so later, we arrived at beautiful snow-covered Iiyama.
All of the stations on the Shinkansen line are clean and very modern and Iiyama was no exception. Standing on the platform we realised that quite a few Aussies had also stepped off the train at Iiyama. However, it was quickly apparent that most were headed for nearby Nozawa Onsen, and when we mentioned we were headed for Madarao, we were generally greeted with puzzled looks. It struck me that Madarao must still be relatively unknown, which surprised me given the amount of press the resort has received in recent times.
While gathering the rest of our baggage and getting our bearings on the platform, we were lucky enough to see an express Shinkansen blast through the station at over 250 km/h. The kids were excited, as were mum and dad. It was awesome. We moved downstairs, passed through the ticket office and immediately began looking for our bus. I was a little on edge as I knew the bus was due to depart in 10 mins, and being unfamiliar with the area, I wasn’t keen to dilly-dally. The kids on the offer hand just wanted to play in the snow drifts. At this point I learnt a lesson: there is no point getting stressed or angry at the kids for the sake of an adult-imposed deadline. Take a deep breath and just let them enjoy the experience; after all, they are on a holiday too.
While the kids were playing I continued scouted around for the bus top. While the stop for Nozawa Onsen was immediately obvious (given the queue of Aussies), I eventually had to ask for directions to the Madarao bus stop, which as it turned out was just outside the front door (just a few steps to the right, bus stop No. 1). The bus arrived just a few minutes later and we happily boarded the bus for the final part of our journey to Madarao, a short 30 mins drive away.
Bus to Nozawa Onsen (Top left); Bus stop No. 1 to Madarao (Bottom Left) and the local Madarao Bus (Right)