Japan 2012

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.

So,

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

too confused.

Our

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

airplanes."

The

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.

With

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!

While

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.

Hirafu

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

unavoidable.

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.

When

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.

We

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.

Lunch

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.

Day

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.

The

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

instantly.

We

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.

Today, Thomas

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

skier.

Mitch

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.

As

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?

The next

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).

We

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

Edo charm."

One

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

shell.

The

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

silent.

It

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.

We

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.


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