Thursday, March 14, 2013

Dispatches from Japan – Chapter 2

After our interesting first day in Niseko we then embarked on a few days of awesome, unescorted skiing in the area, armed with our new maps.  Fortunately, our second day was finally the end of the storm (actually, just a break between storms) so we were able to get up high, ski pretty open terrain, and actually see what our options were.  Niseko has four ski resorts that are clustered around a sort of lumpy volcano, and beyond that is another lumpy volcano and plenty of great terrain.  The resorts are mostly south facing; I think that Hokkaido gets so much snow that aspect (and sun damage) simply doesn’t matter that much despite the fact that it’s about the same latitude as Salt Lake.    Which means that the available backcountry skiing is effectively “doubled” as well.  And across the valley is the imposing Yotie volcano, with a pretty impressive 6000’ feet of vertical:

Our Aussie Frat house had advertised breakfast, but a quick scan indicated that meant coffee, Japanese Wonder Bread, peanut butter, and jelly, which didn’t really fly for middle-aged fuddy duddies who planned on doing decent;y-big days of backcountry skiing.  And though we were open to the typical Japanese breakfast (of rice, fish, vegetables, noodles, miso soup, etc that we had at the airport hotel upon our arrival) Ash is quite good at hunting down a good American breakfast cafe, and the one she found was complete with succulent little pain au chocolates that we stocked up on for lunch dessert as well as breakfast dessert:

We then hopped on a series of three chairlifts to get us to the top of the resort (we had skinned up the lower chairlift under the lights on the evening of our arrival and made it to the top before being very politely told it was not allowed) and then had to wait 45 minutes for the backcountry gate to open.  I was in the mindset that we weren’t actually resort skiers  - we only bought a one-ride! – and that we were gawdam ‘Mericans and we should just charge on past the gate anyway, but Ash correctly just shook her head at me in disgust, plopped down on her pack, and enjoyed the only sun we had all week. 

Just like at Alta, as the time approached for the gate to open the crowds began to gather.  We were sitting a few hundred feet below the ridge, and when the gate opened probably a hundred people started marching up the steep groomer to the ridge.  Up on top we had a glorious view of the entire area, but we didn’t linger long because our fellow “backcountry” skiers were clicking in and commencing firing down the 2000 foot north facing bowl (though the vibe was much more civilized and calm than the typical Alta Powder Frenzy; perhaps due to the fact that it seems to always snow in Hokkaido?).  The resort skiers were able to do a long shuffle back around to an adjacent resort (a few days later we saw some Finnish guys who took exactly the same amount of time to shuffle around and ride the chairs back up the 2000’ run as it took us to skin back up it) while we had our eyes on the adjacent peak across the valley, Iwano Puri (in the background):

We had a glorious day of skiing multiple 1000+ foot runs:

and ended at another onsen (hot spring). 

I’m not sure if onsening is a Hokkaido tradition or a Japanese tradition, but whatever it is, I’m in.  Given Japan’s prime location in the Pacific rim’s Ring of Fire it’s not surprising that they have a lot of thermal activity, and they take full advantage of the the naturally-heated water.  They are “built up”; that is, there are buildings, and once you pay you go into a locker room, “change” (one of the few rules is nakedness), go into a wash area, sit on these little stools and take a seated shower, then – with the “modesty” towel strategically-placed into the hot spring, which is usually half-inside/half-outside (with the latter inevitably ringed by a giant wall of snow).  Even the fancy hotels' onsens are natural, with uneven rocks and boulders.  After a good time of cookage  -with the modesty towel strategically stored on top of your head – it’s time time to head back into the shower room for another good cleansing, this time with much gusto. 

One unfortunate rule was that the onsens are gender-specific, so Ash and I had to enjoy them separately.  And the other interesting rule about onsens was….no tattoos (scars are ok, apparently; no one kicked me out).  Could be a tough one for a lot of Western skiers. 

No pics of the onsens, understandably…..dork or no, I wasn’t going to be the asshole taking pictures of our naked Japanese hosts….

One problem that we had yet to address that day was how to get home.  It was late in the day, we were 2000’ below the top of the ski resort we had started on, it was a long, circuitous drive from town up an obscure and small dead-end road, so there was no bus service and certainly no taxis.  We were simply hoping to catch a ride home with fellow onseners.  In one of the pools I immediately met a couple of Americans (one of whom grew up about 10 mi from me in Oregon) who had been out on a tour that day with Toshi, who apparently was nearby (another of the Americans seemed to have the build and appearance of our departed Brit friend Giles, so I was glad that we had been on our own that day).  I was stoked; here was our ride back.  However, they had too big of a crew and couldn’t fit us in the van. But Toshi pointed out that a 10 minute, traversy walk put us over a ridge that then descended back down into one of the 4 ski resorts, where we could catch a shuttle back to our village.  So even though we had to pull our sweaty clothes and ski boots back on after our nice onsen cleanse, we had a really nice walk in a glorious sunset and a quick cruise to an awaiting bus.  As ever, winging it can have its frustrating moments and its great opportunities. 

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