Flying through Los Angeles
International Airport sucks. It is old and smells mildewy. You almost
always have to transfer terminals and to do so requires either waiting
forever for their non-existent Terminal Shuttle or shlepping your stuff
around and walk for 30 minutes. Then, when you find the right terminal,
there is no food on the concourse so you decide to eat in the terminal.
However, most cross-Pacific flights leave around midnight and most of
the restaurants are closed. So, you're stuck with Panda Express or
McDonald's. And LA is hot and sticky. LAX is awful.
landing in Tokyo Haneda International Airport was quite refreshing.
The air was cool and crisp. There were easy to recognize signs that
pointed us in the right direction. The bus to the domestic terminal ran
frequently and was on time. The domestic terminal was clean and was
already serving various breakfasts at 5:00am. But we couldn't decide if
we had just had breakfast on the plane or not. From LAX to Tokyo we
were fed a couple of meals, but the one with two hours left in our
flight would have made it dinner in the US or a weird breakfast at 2 am
in Japan. And it wasn't really typical breakfast food, by Japanese or
American standards. We opted for no breakfast yet. Our stomachs were
flight to Chitose Airport on Hokkaido left Tokyo a little late. A
snowstorm on the North Island was apparently causing some difficulties.
Because of our limited time in Japan, Scott and I were anxious after
the captain told us that we might have to return to Tokyo after only 30
minutes in the air. While the threat of returning was reiterated as we
circled over Chitose for an hour, we eventually began our bumpy decent
into Chitose. Much praise should go out to the pilot too for landing
that bird with very little visibility. Scott even joked as we
approached the run way: "I wonder if they make snow tires for
runway had a thick layer of fresh snow covering the tarmack and 12" of
fresh powder was piled up to its sides. And here I must mention a big
cultural difference between the United States and Japan. It comes when
the plane is taxing to its gate after landing. In the United States,
what is the first thing you hear upon landing? Clicks. That's right.
Click, click, click, click, click. The sound of seat belts being
unfastened. Even though we all know that we should wait until we are at
the gate and the captain has turned off the fasten seat belt light,
almost everyone still unbuckles right after landing. (I've never really
understood this. Where are you going anyway? You're stuck there until
the doors are opened. Unclicking and standing up gets you nowhere)
What happens in Japan? Silence. The captain comes on the intercom and
welcomes everyone to Tokyo. Then the flight attendant ask that everyone
remain seated with their seat belts fastened until the captain has
turned off the fasten seat belt light. And everyone does. We pull up
to the gate and even in the couple of seconds that the plane is stopped
before the light comes on, people still wait. "Bing!" The fasten seat
belt sign is off and then people unbuckle their seat belts and start to
collect their possessions. Japan=Orderly
My dad had been doing
work in Asia and had just finished up a lecture in Tokyo. He had flown
to Chitose the day before and stayed at the airport hotel. He met us at
baggage claim and we went to find where we would meet our bus to take
us to Niseko. By the way that the Japanese pile into these large buses
to even travel from town to town in Japan makes me understand why they
are so comfortable traveling in large tour buses when they visit the
United States. Even with the bus full, it's remarkably quiet. People
sleep or carry out quiet conversations. For the next two hours the bus
wove its way along the equally quiet winding, snow-covered, roads.
Scott and I were awed by the amount of snow that they had here. We knew
Japan had extraordinary amounts of snow and were glad not to be
disappointed. Colorado, you see, was having a terrible winter. Very
low snow and very high avalanche danger. But Japan, year after year,
routinely gets a lot of snow. They have a relatively short season
though, mid-December through early March, but it seems to dump an entire
Colorado season's worth of snow in that time, and then some.
about an hour left in the drive, the bus pulled over at what I can only
call a Japanese truck stop. Only it's not like the American truck
stops. Inside has fresh fruit, a whole local mushroom store, and
various food vendors selling everything from noodles to kabob to, my
favorite, Bao. Bao is a sweet doughy roll stuffed usually with meat or
vegetables. They're about the size of a grapefruit and are cozy, hot,
and steamy. Best truck stop food ever!
we may have had a brief bus miscommunication and got dropped off 10
minutes from where we were supposed to, we arrived at the Black Diamond
Lodge around Two that afternoon. If you have happened to see any of the
major ski/snowboard films lately that have featured Japan, most of them
have stayed with and been guided by, the Black Diamond Lodge.
Including the same group of great US pro skiers that we met in Kashmir,
Pep Fujas and Andy Mahre from Nimbus Productions. When guys like that
take a whole month out of their season to stay in Japan, you know that
it's worth it. On the hunt for some lunch, the Lodge points us in the
direction of catching the bus back to Grand Hirafu for a noodle house.
is in a way, like many ski resort towns around the world. There is a
little bit of Japan here, but there is a lot of that international
melting pot mix. And with many ski towns on in countries on the
Pacific, there are a lot of Aussis. We found said noodle house fairly
quickly, which we were glad for since our feet were cold and wet. The
snow that had come overnight was much wetter than usual and the slush
that was building up on the hilly road from the ski area was thick and
While everything in Japan may be a bit expensive, at
least you don't feel like it was not worth it. Take our bowls of
noodles. For 800 to 1000 Yen or 10-12 US Dollars, the bowl of ramen
with pork, crab, etc. is about the size of a mixing bowl used for
baking. It's huge. Like Bao, it's one of those great comfort foods
that are perfect on the ski slopes when a steaming bowl of warm noodles
is just what you want.
By the way, I seemed to have missed the
description of one very important part of Japan. The toilettes. It's
like the captain's seat at the Star Ship Enterprise. The first great
surprise is that they're heated. Your bare bum is comforted by a warm
seat that, when you've been out skiing, is the nicest gift.
Additionally, there is a front and back bidet that has a heat and
pressure control setting. Heated bidet! Oh, and a butt dryer.It
continued to snow through much of the night (at least by our standards)
and we woke up to about one foot of fresh snow. Looking outside the
window of our room, this looked wonderful. One foot on top of their
already 15 foot base! The snow banks outside were already taller than
the first story of the Lodge.
we met our guide for the day, Thomas, he apologized that this was not
the best snow. That the warm weather and wet snow from the day before
made it not typical Japan. For us, who were coming from the worst
Colorado winter in three decades, this was great. Thomas, a Frenchman,
from New Zealand was here for his first season of guiding in Japan.
However, being a competitor in big mountain competitions as well as an
internationally certified Mountaineering guide, we had all the faith in
Thomas. And after our first run at Annupuri we understood that Thomas
wasn't going to take it easy on us either.
haven't had too many days with many vertical this season in Colorado
and I was just coming off of a major surgery to my femur. This would be
only my sixth day back on skis this season. So, when after the first
run, and my legs were already burning, I knew that I was not back to the
old shape that I used to be. But then, I didn't feel so bad, because by
the end of the first day Scott's legs were also burning. And Scott
never gets tired. Our first day consisted of several laps out of Gates 2
and 7 where the vertical per run is almost twice as much as some of the
resorts in Colorado. The slope varied between steep to mellow but
always in open Birch forests. For one run we ventured over to Moiwa
Resort, a small side mountain from Annupuri that is quiet but alive with
good runs. I guess alive is how I would describe how the runs made me
feel, but there is was something that was actually quite sedative at
Moiwa. Over loud speakers on the lift towers, Opera blared all over the
mountain. This was quite a change from Annupuri which had some angry,
gangta rap playing over its megaphones. But the Opera did seem more
fitting for this quiet mountain. There were less "serious" looking
skiers over here, more family and kids. The Japanese version of the
"Tenth Mountain Division" were also skiing this side of Niseko and let
me just say, that if the Japanese and American ski armies were in a
competition against each other in terms of ski skill, I'd put my money
on the Japanese.
at Annuprui was a good introduction to how I think many quick lunches
are served. Outside the cafeteria there is a display case. Inside the
display case there are plastic versions of all of the meal choices.
Next to the display case is an electronic kiosk. From the kiosk you
select the meal option you desire, perhaps a beverage, and pay. The
kiosk will dispense a ticket and from there you enter the cafeteria and
then pick up your meal when your number is called. Unfortunately, in
some cases, lunch can take an hour because the line to order at the
kiosk moves very slowly.
I cannot tell you what happened in
between going back to the Lodge and waking up the next morning. I know I
was awake, the jet lag wasn't that bad at all, but I was just
exhausted. It had been a while since I skied a full 9-4 and with Thomas
as a guide, it was charging non-stop laps. Resting was for the gondola
and lifts. Needless to say, I think we ate dinner at the bar at the
Lodge and I think we stretched out our sore muscles and watched a movie.
I think this is how dinner went every night of the trip.
two would be some backcountry skiing on Shiribetsu, a 1200m mountain in
the shadow of Mt. Yotei Volcano. But before we could embark we needed
to make a pit stop at the 7-11 to grab snacks and lunch for the day.
7-11 really Thomas? We're going to get lunch from 7-11? Yep. And
guess what? They have Bao! They also had this tasty little pocket
treat called Onigiri. It's like a giant, contained Sushi hand roll.
But they're packaged perfectly. They served warm at the 7-11, but
they're fine cold too after they've been in your backback while your
skiing and need a snack that's quick and easy to stuff in your mouth.
morning started clear, but Mitch at the Lodge had assured us that the
clouds and wind would move in. The skin started across open fields with
a fantastic view of Yotei, but soon we would begin to climb up through
the trees. The occasional bamboo shoot sticks up through the snow. The
snow pack across Hoikkaido sits on this bamboo. Which sometimes can
offer a more stable base than Colorado snow pack, which sits on rocky
slopes. That base difference creates a difference in how the snow warms
and thaws. In Japan, the bamboo is relatively safe, you just have to
be cautious of "crack slides." A crack slide is when the whole snow
pack shifts, similar to the start of an avalanche. But instead of
collapsing, breaking apart, and sliding all the way down the slope. The
crack slide is just a settling, a moving of the slope just a few feet.
This does create a mini-crevasse that can range from 3-10 feet deep.
At the end of the season though, as the water starts to run beneath the
bamboo, eventually the whole slope does release in an avalanche, all the
way to the ground. Only the ground is bamboo. And that bamboo that
has been resting dormant under the snow for the winter springs back up
almost instantly bringing the mountains from white to green almost
topped out on the first ridge for a quick snack and were welcomed with a
whole new view of skiable terrain. This "small" mountain in the region
could easily provide skiing for a whole season without ever skiing the
same line twice. The slope is steep, about 40-50 degrees and dotted
with wide spaced trees, some mushroom pillows, and decent rocks to jump
off. The snow is quite interesting here. It is light yet sticky. A
three foot diameter mushroom of snow can pile up on just a six inch
diameter branch. But if you were to ski through this pillow, it would
disintegrate into the fluffiest powder instantly.
seemed a little more subdued from Annupuri. Perhaps he sensed we were
beaten from the day before or perhaps the runs were long and stopping
once or twice in the 1000m of vertical was fine. Regardless, by the
time we reached the top for the second run, we were all bonking. Time
for those delicious Onigiri! They really are perfect for the hungry
from the Lodge was right though. And soon after noon the clouds rolled
back in and snow began to fall. It was a little vicious up top with
the wind, but as soon as we began descending it became a gentle whisper
and snowflakes slowly floated to the ground. Not the best snow eh
Thomas? The face shots were so frequent that my sense of direction would
get a little skewed. It gets your heart rate up when you can't see for
four or five turns in a row. You at least think you're dodging trees,
but you're not too sure about that fallen log you think you saw.
the afternoon wore down, we made our way back out the skin track and
through the field back to the car. We stopped by 7-11 for more Bao and
then dropped some stuff off at the Black Diamond Lodge office where we
met Odi. Odi belongs to Andrew (Canadian, eh?) and Yuri (Japanese) and
is a Chiwawa mix who is afraid to go down stairs.... I wonder what he
thinks of the skate ramp then in the office. hmm?
morning we had to pack all of our things before breakfast, because after
we were done skiing at Rusutsu, we wouldn't be heading back to the
Lodge at all, we would be going straight to Chitose to being the trip
home. Rusutsu is interesting to look at when you first pull up to it.
First, there is a full size amusement park. It's not open in the winter
of course, but it is interesting to see these large roller coasters at
the base of a functioning ski area. Second, there are two separate
mountains with the small valley with the roller coaster in between. A
gondola connects Rusutsu East and Rusutsu West. Rusutsu West is much
larger than Rusutsu East. In fact, much like Shiribetsu, it's much
bigger than I previously imagined.
We were initially hoping for a
great powder day since it had snowed a solid 30 cm at the Lodge the
night before, but I guess the 20 km difference changed the weather
patterns and Rusutsu could only boast a couple of inches. Even
considering that this could be a day of "powder/packed powder" Rusutsu
didn't disappoint. Thomas managed to find us some good runs at Rusutsu
with the help of Haiden, another of Black Diamond Lodge's guides. Scott
though couldn't help but be reminded of his home mountain Powderhorn
while skiing at Rusutsu and I had to agree. Trade the birch trees for
aspens and triple the size of Powderhorn, and you would have Rusutsu.
Well, only Powderhorn doesn't have Japanese toilettes and a Ramen bar,
complete with roe. Nor would any resort in the United States for that
matter, have an energy with 20 grams of nicotine. Yeah, like nicotine
and Red Bull combined. Neither would Powderhorn have an amazing view of
the Sea of Japan and Lake Toya (the site of the 2008 G8 Summit).
were sad to see the day close, because that only meant that we now had
to leave back to the US. We bid a farewell to Thomas and Haiden, hoping
to see them again on this or any other side of the planet. Next, we
boarded the bus back to Chitose.... or course not without a break at
that glorious truck stop.
The next day we flew back to Tokyo.
Since our bags were checked through to Denver and we had an eight hour
layover in Narita we decided to make a quick stop into the city. Narita
has really developed as a major layover destination with some noodle
houses clearly being the place that flight attendants make their meal
stops. But Narita also has some remarkable other sights. As the
tourist map likes to say it is a "temple town full of hospitality and
of the first things about the main streets of Narita (just 10 minute
train ride from the airport) are some of the shops full of Japanese
kitsch. Hello Kitty was everywhere. However, we were surprised not to
find any Godzilla memorabilia.As
we continued to meander down the road to the temple we passed a window,
looking into a shop preparing wonderful doughy looking things. The
line was long with locals too, so we figured we had to try whatever this
was. "This" was Kintoki, a soft bean paste jam surrounded in a crispy
next "attraction" down the road was a certain Unagi shop. Unagi is eel
and there are about 60 shops that serve eel in just that neighborhood.
This shop however, had a guy right on the sidewalk, butchering live
eels for immediate grilling. He would dunk his hand into a bucket of
water, full or writhing eels. Next he nearly
slices its head off and then takes said head and pins it to the table
by driving a nail through its skull. With the body still squirming, he
fillets the eel open, rips out its innards, cleans it, and then slices
it to the next man who puts it on a kabob. This process takes all but
ten seconds and he seems to do it all day.Finally
we neared the temple and mingled up the steps with those who came to
pray. Some of the buildings after the main gate are over 300 years old
and enshrine sacred Buddha statues. But the real prize is walking
through the Naritisan Park. A slow stroll through the park brings you
past sculptures for worship, gardens, pagodas, koi ponds, and
waterfalls. At one magical moment, as the sun was seeping through the
dense trees, the sounds of a great gong rang through the gardens. For
several moments it rang and for several moments everything else was
amazed me that such a large hub, in one of the most densely populated
countries in the world could have such great, quiet, and peaceful
places. We probably could have wandered in the Naritasan Park the whole
day, similar to how Scott and I explored the castle gardens in Czech
Republic. The temple gong ringing through the air and the dedication to
the victims of the Tsunami reminded me of how spiritual Japan is.
had only been in Japan for four days and had really only been in a more
tourist attended part of the country. Yet, the pulse of Japan still
seems to be felt even in the shops in Hirifu selling Hello Kitty and
anime cartoons. There is a sense of order and a sense that that order
brings peace to one's soul here. Whether it is skiing through the soft
powder as the snow falls gently down, or in a temple of worshipers
wrapped in the smell of incense, there is a simpleness to the way
things are in Japan. It is about making the simple things be pleasant.
That is why the famous Japanese Tea Ceremonies are called Chado
(*spelling is often subject to change). Cha meaning tea and Do
referring to Tao and The Way. Nothing is materialistic about a tea
ceremony. Sure the formal steps of presentation are elaborate and
complicated but it is meant to bring the participant to an internal
peace, focusing only on enlightenment. The calm and deliberate motions
of the Japanese, full of order and organization are inherent in every
Japanese that I met on this trip. It made the hustle and bustle of the
airport seem slow and methodical. If only now I can manage to keep some
of that internal peace and quiet as I return to the chaotic, fast paced
life of the United States.