We flew out of New Zealand at 10pm on 27 December. Coincidentally, Andy’s brother Tom was flying back to Melbourne at the same time, so we got to see him for a bonus few hours at the airport. Being the penny savers we are, we had opted to fly with China Eastern over Air New Zealand to save ourselves $300 each. It meant that the flight wasn’t direct, but I personally think it was still worth it. We got meals, movies and a wee stopover in China itself, Shanghai to be exact. I can’t say that we actually saw China, as we did not leave the airport. We spent most of our four hours in transit going through security (which seemed odd, because being in transit meant we had literally stepped off a flight and then we had to go through security again?!) and debating whether the incredibly grey, closed in sky was the result of pollution or merely a cloudy day. Either way, it was pretty grim – we were definitely excited to be leaving what we considered a very boring airport and getting on our plane to Tokyo. The airline itself, China Eastern, was entirely satisfactory to fly with – the only thing I didn’t like was when they made us stop watching movies for the descent – still 45 minute from our due arrival time.
When we touched down at Tokyo’s Narita airport, it was a relief to see that their processes for security and customs looked to be a whole lot more efficient than that of China’s. We were through in no time, meaning we had enough time to do some life admin before our shuttle (to the snow) was due to arrive.
First piece of life admin was collecting our JR train passes. Something which you need to apply for before you come to Japan, these seemingly ridiculously priced train passes ended up saving us what would have been hundreds of dollars across the course of our trip. Basically they are passes for foreigners which enable us to do unlimited travel within a certain time period. We ordered a 14 day pass for $572 each. A useful website with information relating to JR passes can be found here. When you pre-order your pass, an ‘exchange voucher’ will be sent to your designated address, which you need to take with you to a JR office once you get to Japan for exchange into the actual pass.
When you come out of the arrivals gate at Narita airport, take an immediate left and head down the escalator to the JR shop. Here we exchanged our voucher for the actual pass, and selected our activation date for a week later (so although we didn’t plan on using it immediately, it was much more convenient doing it at the airport compared to finding a JR retail store once we got to Hakuba).
The second piece of admin we had to do was locate some kind of pocket wifi. We had been told by a few different people that it was worth it, so we planned to at least check it out. Our conclusion was that although it certainly would be convenient to have wifi with you everywhere you go, as New Zealanders (and with our unlocked iPhones) it would be most efficient to just buy a sim card for $50NZD with 3GB of data for the next 15 days. The pocket wifi was capped at 500MB/day, which we decided was just such a small amount for the price paid. We bought just the one sim, meaning that only one of us could have the data (Andy became the designated ‘researcher’ as I was already the self proclaimed photographer and needed to preserve my phone battery when possible).
The final piece of life admin to be done before we caught our shuttle was to locate an ATM. We had been forewarned that ATMs in Japan will frequently only accept domestically owned cards (despite advertising that they accepted foreign credit cards) except that ATM’s at 7/11s could be relied upon. There were 7/11 ATMs at the airport, so that was a problem that never amounted to anything.
Finally, time to board the Nagano Snow Shuttle. We had stocked up on snacks at the 7/11 airport (located downstairs near the JR office of the airport, it sells food at uninflated airport prices) so we were rearing to go. The service was absolutely terrific: door-to-door from Terminal 2 of Narita Airport to our accommodation in the Nagano area. It cost us $130 each. We checked in inside the airport and were shown to the bus. It took approximately 5.5 hours to reach our accommodation, but this included a few toilet stops and food breaks along the way. Our departure time of 3pm meant we were lucky enough to witness spectacular views of the sun setting behind Mt. Fuji – what a welcome. It gets dark early, about 5pm, so it was wonderful to be dropped right outside our lodge.