After a great micro-vacation to the land of powder snow and delicious dairy confections, I have returned to the relatively mild, yet completely uninsulated winter of Fukuoka, and am already wasting this evening away before I return to work tomorrow.
The rest of the Hokkaido trip turned out to be great and I am already sorely aching to be back at Niseko. I'll provide a recap in slightly more detail than the posts below, and then hopefully be disciplined enough to get some photos thrown up here.
Day 1The first day of snowboarding was blessed with great conditions and "not yet sore" legs, which permitted a great day on a beautiful mountain. It had snowed a day before, so there was plenty of silky, white gold to carve up. Cira and Patrick entered snowboarding school to learn for the first time, and Grace decided to take a lesson as well, so I went up with Carl and Kevin. I started to realize I had a bit more experience than them, despite the fact that both of them are far more fit than me as regular exercisers and furthermore, they were both a little sick from earlier in the week. I eventually lost track of them as I opted to veer off from our green runs to carve up some intermediate trails. I lost track of the intersecting points where we planned to meet and continued on my own for a bit, before we all met up for lunch. Everyone seemed exhausted. We sat around there for way too long, eating and resting, and then we went back out. Pat called to inform us that he lost hold of his board while walking to his afternoon lesson sending it sailing dangerously down the mountain. He resolved to quit snowboarding then and there, aggravated by a ski patrolman who yelled at him for being so careless. But eventually his board did turn up (I had a feeling it would) and he was back on track with lessons the following day. I'm glad because he had a really good time and seemed to learn quickly.
I went off on my own again for a little while and we met up at 4:30 to head back to the lodge. After dinner we went out to town and enjoyed some onsen relaxation. I stood nude in an outdoor hotspring on a windswept balcony overlooking the family ski runs. I enjoyed standing triumphantly naked in the sub-freezing wind; The water had heated me enough that I didn't mind the temperature, and my ego had groomed me enough that I didn't mind the possibility of being casually spotted by a skier. When we returned I happened to met Alice, a very cute Aussie girl who was working at the lodge for the season. She was sitting in the common room drinking scotch when we came in from the onsen and people split up to go to bed or check their email. I ended up hanging out with Alice for about an hour, I was exhausted, but she was presumably drunk, so I wasn't too embarrassed. We talked about meeting up on the mountain the following morning when she finished working the breakfast shift.
Day 2My friends were all pretty beat. Some of them had gone out the evening before while I opted to sleep. Most of them slept in after coming downstairs in the pajamas just to snag the free breakfast. I didn't see Alice during breakfast, so I went out on the first shuttle with Patrick, who was also out bright'n early for his second day of lessons.
I was on my own and kinda pissed that nobody else came out, and that I hadn't met Alice in the morning. Conditions were pretty crappy- cold, icy, and windy, but after a few runs on empty trails where nobody could see my horrible falls and subsequent cursing at the hard ice, I was loosened up and ended up having an AMAZING morning; resigned to see as much of the mountain as possible, I found a great powdery patch 3/4 of the way up. I even ventured to the peak via a nearly-empty lift to the tippy top. Up there, it was pretty steep and far too windy to enjoy boarding, but the view was just unreal. I slipped down on my heel edge and did many more runs on the course I had earlier discovered, weaving through trees and powder. Then I made my way down the mountain to meet the others for lunch. When I took off my ninja mask, everyone gasped at how badly windburned i'd gotten. A trip to the bathroom confirmed that my face was red and white like the stripes of the American flag, likely due to my journey to the summit. The others had been out on the Family course while Cira practiced getting up and hooking some turns. I inhaled a lot of a pizza and then decided to go back out there with everyone else. I was tired of being out on my own. The Family course was not very steep, but way too icy and choked with people just learning to ski or board, who would frequently fall or turn unexpectedly. I felt bad for Cira, who had little experience and had to deal with those harsh conditions. Falling on the hard icy snow really hurt. I practiced my 180s and riding switch, but finally decided i had taken enough spills and convinced Carl to accompany me up near where I'd been earlier.
By that point it was mid afternoon, and when we got up to my powdery haven of the morning, conditions had become much less than ideal. It was brutally windy, like it was at the top, and in fact they shut down the lift right after we disembarked up there. Carl was sick and tired and cold and his goggles began fogging badly. I felt bad for dragging him up there, but he had a great attitude and we made it down together. I had an awesome time pushing myself to carve nose-down through the wind on trails a bit steeper than I'm used to. By the time we got down, I was so fully energized that I was jumping around in the snow and climbing around in it while we waited for the shuttle, but our group was otherwise wiped out, so we just headed back to the lodge.
After dinner and a trip out to another onsen, we came back to the lodge for some live jazz. I made my way downstairs with Patrick and had another fun conversation with cute Alice, who alternately served drinks and mingled with me and others.
Eventually though, our conversation was thrown off-track by a nearby man called Vaughn who started engaging me in political discussion. I got pretty fired up about the questions he asked and I'm pretty sure that drove away my lovely, pretty Alice. She started mingling elsewhere and I got deeper and deeper into politics of the Middle East and world order. Eventually Pat left too and Vaughn asked me if Patrick was my partner, but he asked in such a genuinely open-minded way that it was no big deal to just be like "oh... no. ...no he's just my friend." Still, that came off as a funny story later when I told everyone else.
Vaughn went on at length about America, world politics, and the magical impact of the mountains. He said that America is a world military power and we shouldn't be so ashamed of that. He also said that the world will never wise up until we are governed by a single leader. This was not the first time I had heard this sentiment, and it always freaks me out a little. On a more hilarious note, he nominated Bob Dylan for the job. He said Dylan is clearly incorruptible. "just listen to his lyrics" he said, "how many roads must a man walk down?"
He also said that the being on the mountain was spiritual and magical for anyone and everyone, and asked me if i believed in a higher power. After I explained my personal views about a lack of god and a much more interesting physical reality responsible for our nuanced psychological behavior, he categorized me as an "intuitive agnostic." I kind've dig that label. It reminded me of a painting class when a teacher first categorized me as an "abstract expressionist." --A weird mix of feeling slightly resentful of being sorted so matter-of-factly, but also somewhat enjoying the extent of the label, and all it implies.
Anyway, chatting with Vaughn was kinda interesting, but i really regret not talking with Alice any more, especially after missing an opportunity to go out on the slopes with her and another cute member of the staff. Instead boarding on my own, fun though it was, felt like I missed some great opportunity. I never got her email or even said goodbye the next morning because she wasn't mulling around the breakfast room or the kitchen. Oh well. Another day, a less-shy Mike.
Day 3When we woke up, it was just dumping powder snow, and I was visibly peeved that we weren't able to go out on the mountain to enjoy it. We had changed out bus time to 3PM to 10AM, but if we had stuck with the original time we would have had time to go enjoy what Niseko is famous for: amazing, amazing powder snow. Yet everyone else seemed exhausted and ready to move on. It made me feel kind of awkward to be the only one really wanting to maximize our mountain time. The night before, when I suggested changing the time back to 3, people were just kinda like 'eh. too bad.' We probably couldn't have changed it back at that point anyway, but it was just surprising to feel like the one with the most energy. I guess everyone else was under the weather.
At any rate, we packed up and got on a bus to Sapporo for our last day. We arrived and ventured out to see the ice and snow sculptures being prepared for this week's snow festival. The sculptures were a little disappointing, and Sapporo somehow seemed far colder and windier than Niseko. I longed to be back on the mountain plowing through soft floury powder. The famous sculptures were huge and pictographically realistic, but truth be told, they were just snow packed over wooden-framed sculptures and then shaped by hand. Eh.
That night, however, we had an amazing feast of tabehodai (all you can eat) snow crab and king crab. The cost was about $50, but that included endless plates of crab legs, plus tabehodai sushi, crab custard, tempura, plus nomihodai (all you can drink) sake, draught beer, soft drinks, etc.
I definitely got my money's worth, and i'd like to think my crab-shelling skills improved, as well.
We spent the night watching Mixed Martial Arts fights on UFC and I crashed a bit earlier than the others, as they settled in to watch the Super Bowl, which did not interest me at all..
Today we journeyed back to good old FUK. At the train station, we waited in line for 40 minutes to get special caramel that was recently featured on the news. It's made from "special milk" on a specific farm in hokkaido, and being featured like that on tv has made it the hokkaido gift of the year. a little played up, but it was a fun experience participating in the hype.
Tonight I will find something to eat, perhaps at the local izakaya, and bring the staff some delicious gifts from up north.
at the Aussie lodge!
ready to carve up Niseko!
waiting on ramen
There it is!
Snow sculptures in Sapporo. What is that, Buzz Lightyear and his weird children?