Monday, January 29, 2024

A Road Trip to Central Hokkaido

The whole point of me coming to Japan for the season is to go skiing. So when work got very light on the ground after the busy Xmas/New Year period I arranged to head off for a week to go ski some powder.

Working at Winkel I already have access to two mountains where I can ski for free. Asari, just a few hundred metres up the road from our accommodation, and Kiroro, a 40 minute drive over one of the most hazardous road passes in Hokkaido. There's been a few hairy drives, where the visibility is limited to almost zero, when it's pure whiteout and you're driving at less than 20km/hr, with cars driving off the road into snowbanks and the like. Luckily, we've had no mishaps, but the drive can sometimes be quite exhausting.

Asari is a small mountain, with not a lot of off piste terrain to explore, but its piste slopes are excellent for working on technique. Kiroro, however, boasts the highest amount of snowfall in Hokkaido, and its tree runs can be epic, if rather short in length. The touring is supposed to be great, but I've not had the pleasure due to lack of companions to go with. Julian and Ella never invited me on any of their ski touring forays so I had to make do with inbound powder.

I was pretty keen to get away from the house, and the somewhat toxic environment of one grumpy old lady requesting four typically lazy teens\early 20s to respect the rules that had been expected of them by their employer. These rules, around respect for communal property, cleanliness, work uniforms, use of office vehicles, were continuously ignored, and even deviously circumvented through lying about use of the office cars for personal use to avoid paying for them. Unfortunately, young people don't realise that their deviousness is pretty transparent, particularly when a trip to the supermarket is only a 5 km round trip and the odometer reads 20!!

I hired a car and headed north. Fujiisan, my boss, had secured a 40% discount on the hire charges, and had suggested I visit a small ski field called Hidaka on my way to Furano. It wasn't far out of my way, about 30 minutes once I left the motorway, and I could ski there for 2 hours for the grand price of 1500Yen, approximately $15. Bargain!

It hasn't been a bumper year for snow in Hokkaido, and Central Hokkaido, being further inland, gets less snow than the resorts closer to the coast. The upside is the snow is drier, being further from the coast, but Hidaka hadn't had fresh snow for a few days and was pretty firm hard pack, even icy in places. I'd brought my piste skis as well as my big fat touring skis, so I spent the afternoon lapping the groomers and playing with a few skill drills. I got my $15 worth!

On the way back over the pass to rejoin the road to Furano I spooked a deer by the side of the road. That was pretty cool.

It snowed most of the way on my drive to Furano, a good omen for the next day. I was staying 3 nights at a small 1-star hotel in downtown Furano, so after checking in and having a hot shower and soak in the communal bath, I headed out to try one of the ramen places I'd heard about. Unfortunately they were booked out, with at least another hour of waiting before a table would be available, so I popped over the road to another place instead. This place, The Witch's Spoon, was run by an elderly couple who were very welcoming. I ordered the curry soup and it was spectacularly delicious. Best Japanese curry I've ever had.

Day 2 I awoke to snow everywhere, our host busy clearing snow outside delaying his ability to provide hot water for my morning coffee. An elderly Japanese guest sorted the hot water, and since he was reliant on our otherwise occupied host to give him a lift up to the ski field, I offered to give him a lift instead.

We headed up to Kitanomine, where I dropped off the elderly gentleman and found a carpark. I began walking towards the main building to buy a lift ticket, but instead spied Hiromi, who I knew worked for the International Ski School there run by my friend Naoko. Hiromi is Ellie's mum, Ellie being the girl I shared a room with at Winkel in 2020, and we'd gone to visit Hiromi at Furano also in 2020. I chatted to her and another chap I knew from Cardrona, who told me that the lifts were all on hold due to wind. I then continued on to the main buildings, to pop in and see Naoko at the main ski school office. She was understandably preoccupied with trying to reschedule lessons. I waited around a little to see if much more than two lower mountain chairs would open, then decided to call it a day. I didn't fancy paying 7000 Yen to access only a small portion of the mountain, though later the main ropeway opened so it may have been worthwhile after all. By then I'd decided to go visit an onsen.

The Daisetsuzan National Park encompasses the highest peaks in Hokkaido, and is spectacular in both summer and winter. It's extremely popular for ski touring, but it's remote and unforgiving. There's active volcanoes, and lots of geothermal activity, which means quite a few onsens. I decided to visit the onsen in the highest hotel in Hokkaido, a pool of muddy iron rich water perched on the side of Tochidake.

The drive there was spectacular. Across the Tokachi plains on pancake flat roads with occasional glimpses of the nearby peaks, and then a winding road up through giant birch and pine forests, to the hotel at the end of the road. The road further on is impassable in winter, and the wind was blowing one hell of a houley when I at last arrived.

The onsen itself was a bit of a disappointment, mainly because the outside area was essentially an enclosed cave. There was a second pool with amazing views out to the mountains, but this was not only fully exposed to the wild winds, but the water was frigid. The hot water was only being circulated in the inner "cave". The muddy water, however, made my skin feel magnificently soft.

On my way out I met a North American split boarder and his film crew, so I chatted to him before heading back down the mountain. They were going to skin up to a nearby ridge and then ride the ridge down to the road and get picked up in their van. I was jealous that I couldn't go skiing here, the snow looked so nice. Instead, I drove back to Furano, and went looking for somewhere to have dinner.

Again, my first choice wasn't available, so I wandered around until I spied a little bar, and headed upstairs. They said they weren't open for meals yet, but I could stay and have a beer. I ordered a locally brewed dark beer, which was delicious. It was made by the chef's son, who runs a local brewery, and who popped in to see his dad before heading off to Australia for a few days on business. The chef has a daughter in Melbourne, and other relatives in Tasmania. He's of indigenous Ainu heritage and a very fine cook indeed.

Inspired by the chap sitting next to me, who I ended up chatting to most of the evening, I let the chef bring me a variety of dishes. Washed down with the excellent black beer, it was a truly stupendous meal. I even tried the home made Furano gin, but it was a bit too ripe for my tastes. With jazz playing in the background, a humorous camaraderie between the chef and his co-conspirator in the kitchen, and a bunch of people coming and going, it was a memorable evening. I wandered back to my lodgings feeling I'd had a great day, even though no skiing had occurred.

Day 3 I returned to Furano. The wind had settled, but the lines for tickets and the gondola were wickedly long. I managed to actually have a wee chat with Naoko, but she wasn't able to come for a ski with me, so I went off by myself to track down some pow.

The wind had packed the snow down pretty firmly, and anything exposed was wind affected, but I still managed to find a few stashes of soft pow in amongst the trees. By the afternoon my knees were complaining, so I swapped to the skinnier piste skis and smashed out a few groomer runs before calling it a day.

That evening I went to a nearby vegan restaurant I'd heard good things about. This time I had no trouble getting in, and had another memorable meal. And it was only a very short walk from my lodgings too..

Day 4 I checked out and headed further north. My destination was the small resort of Pippu. I'd visited there many years ago on my very first visit to Japan, but there had been no fresh snowfall and it had been somewhat disappointing. Not so this time!

There had been significant snowfall overnight. My first run was on a groomer with a wonderful layer of fresh snow on top. Heaven! Then I headed over to a different lift, and skied down a slope with fresh snow up to my knees. And that's how the next 2 and a half hours went until I stopped for lunch and all the lifts bar one closed due to wind. Each side of the runs had huge swathes of untracked pow to play in, as well as under the lifts. There wasn't much need to go through the trees, there just weren't enough other powder hounds there to track it all out.

I didn't fancy lining up in the queue with the school kids and army guys for the one remaining two seater chairlift, and I was beat anyway. My day ticket included a visit to the onsen at the nearby hotel, so I retired there and spent a couple of hours soaking, relaxing, and chatting with a couple of other western women who'd also been enjoying the powder morning at Pippu.

The drive back to Asahikawa, where I would be staying for the next three nights, was on a very icy road, wind scoured and extremely treacherous. I had an incident where the rear wheels lost traction and I spun the car. Luckily there was no traffic coming in the other direction as I came to rest against the snowbank on the other side of the road. I was on a perfectly straight stretch of road at the time, and going well under the speed limit (40 or 50km/hr). No damage to the car, but a few nerves strained on my part, I drove off, turned around, and drove back even slower than I'd been going beforehand.

My lodgings were in a quaint little ryokan right in the centre of town, run by an elderly gentleman and his family who were incredibly hospitable. I was able to park my car in his garage each evening, and he even pulled out a boot dryer for my ski boots.

After a hot shower and communal bath I headed out for dinner. My host had recommended a ramen place not far away. It was a no thrills affair with a fast throughput of what looked like a lot of regulars. The ramen in Asahikawa is a bit different in that the broth has a lot more fat in it, due to the climate being much colder. The roast pork that was added to the ramen was the best cooked, most tastiest I'd had. That and the tasty broth made this ramen one of the best I've ever eaten. I'm having quite the culinary experience on this trip!!

I've mentioned communal bath a couple of times. In Japanese hotels that don't have onsens, they have communal baths instead. An onsen is a bath using water from natural hot springs, and most onsens are big enough to have two separate bathing areas, segregated by gender. In either an onsen or a communal bath you always shower first, scrubbing your entire body with soap and water before soaking in the bath. Small hotels with just a communal bath generally work just like a normal bathroom, where you lock the door whilst you are in there for privacy, but everyone uses the same hot bath water to soak in. On the assumption that everyone is clean before they get in the bath!! 

Day 5 I headed to Kamui Links, another ski field I'd visited on that first trip in 2015. Though there'd been no fresh snow overnight there was still lots of fresh pow to be found in the trees. It's impossible to get lost, and there's lots of terrain to explore, so I had a ripper of a day.

Back in Asahikawa I found a cute little isakaya just around the corner and ordered a few different dishes. The whole squid was delicious, perfectly cooked, but so were the chicken skewers, and the eggplant and roast tomato dish, both of which I didn't photograph. 

Day 6 was the icing on the cake. Asahidake, also in Daisetsuzan National Park is an active volcano with ropeway access to just above the treeline. I had packed the avy gear and my skins, but the weather didn't play ball, so I didn't bother skinning up higher to visit the fumaroles. The wind had scoured all the faces above the trees, so the skiing up there would have been diabolical, but once down in the trees it was fantastic. A little heavy, and thigh deep, so you really had to keep your speed up. Something I failed to do on my second run and ended up having to dig myself out!! All part of the adventure!

By the third run I was toast, so called it a day and headed to the onsen before driving back to Asahikawa. I got tired of trying to find a yakiniku place that had a free table, so ended up back at the yummy ramen place. An early night for me.

My final day I lingered over breakfast chatting with two other kiwi couples also there for the skiing, before driving back to the Winkel House then dropping off the hire car. I was surprised to find the house clean and tidy, the kitchen especially so, though I suspect it may have been the handiwork of a visiting Japanese ski instructor rather than the laziest of the teens who was home that day. Her boyfriend was coming to visit, but I still don't believe her capable of that much effort!!

Breakfast at the ryokan in Asahikawa

Next it's back to work, this time working for Club Med at Kiroro.

That's next...

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

A proper Japanese winter

I've never been in Japan in December. Prior to becoming a ski instructor I'd come to Japan on recreational trips, usually late January or in February. I'd experienced all sorts of conditions, from not much snow to chest deep powder, and the occasional cold day. When I'd worked here in 2020 I'd arrived at New Year, and it was an unusually warm winter, with Hokkaido locals seeing rain for the first time in winter. Usually it's cold enough for all precipitation to fall as snow....

This time I arrived on the 10th December. It was a convoluted, but uneventful trip, flying business class from Perth to Hong Kong (fully flat seatbed overnight), hot shower  and breakfast in the business lounge in Hong Kong, then Hong Kong to Tokyo via a one hour stopover in Taipei. I was met on leaving the plane at Narita Airport by a Cathay employee who escorted me to immigration, and after the slight delay that is involved in processing a work visa and getting a residence card, I was able to pick up my bags and get through customs pretty quickly. Immediately outside customs were the desks for purchasing a limousine bus ticket to Haneda Airport, 70 kms away, where my flight to Sapporo was departing from in less than 4 hours time. 10 minutes later I was on that bus and we were heading through the peak hour Tokyo traffic. I wasn't the only one checking their watch and google maps to check on our progress!!

The view from the plane flying in to Hong Kong Airport

Breakfast in the Cathay Business Lounge, Hong Kong

At Haneda I checked in my luggage again for the domestic leg to Sapporo city, then headed through security and into the JAL business lounge. They questioned me at first, but I showed them the rest of my boarding passes and was then allowed in. To say I was less than impressed is an understatement. Luckily I'd had 2 meals on my flights from Hong Kong, because there wasn't any food to be had in the domestic lounge. There were beer vending machines, so I availed myself of a glass of Sapporo draught, and sat in the quite comfortable chairs with views out onto the tarmac. Nearby was another western woman and we struck up a conversation. She lived in Hokkaido with her Japanese husband, and was originally from Canberra. She'd actually gone to a couple of the same schools as me, though 6 years after me. Small world...

Haneda Airport from the JAL Business Lounge

The flight to Sapporo was pretty short, and the flight service involved a solitary drink. I'd thought I'd be getting at least a snack in business class, if not a meal, but apparently not. Soon we were descending into New Chitose Airport and I was able to walk a very short distance to my hotel for the night. Another hot shower, and I was in bed by midnight.

The following morning I enjoyed the complimentary breakfast before heading to the airport onsen for a nice soak (the onsen entry is included in the hotel fee), but had to be back at the hotel for checkout at 11am. I then headed off to the JR Station and took the express train to Otaruchikko, where Fujiisan, my boss, picked me up for the short drive to Asarigawaonsen and my home for the next three months.

Waiting for the right train at New Chitose Airport

Winkel House common area (this is a seriously large space for a Japanese home)

I'm sharing the Winkel House with 3 girls, aged 18 and 19, and one fellow. I know Jasper from Cardrona as we were locker neighbours, but the girls are all new to me, even though two of them were at Cardrona on the Polytech program this winter. They are lovely, but they are also self involved teenagers, who haven't yet worked out how to take responsibility for themselves and work together cooperatively. I'm trying to give them a long leash but rein them in from time to time when it comes to cleaning up communal spaces and communicating with everyone in the house when planning a supermarket run. Julian, Ella and their 10 year old daughter Hazel, are living in the house next door and have worked at Winkel for many years. They said it's almost always 18 year olds, because Winkel doesn't pay well and most other ski schools won't employ them that young. So I shall just have to learn to get on with them!

Fujiisan brought a bunch of sushi dishes to share on the evening I arrived. He brought some lovely raw fish ones, but that was far too much a culture shock for the poor girls. They are yet to even consider going to an onsen!

Meanwhile, I've been to the onsen  at least weekly since arriving at Winkel. There has been a change of ownership of Asari Ski Resort, Winkel Village, and the Asarigawaonsen Hotel, so we get to visit the hotel onsen for 200Yen. Normal price is 1000Yen ($10) so that's a bargain! I never bring shampoo and conditioner with me to Japan, I just use the products at the onsens.

We had a few administrative tasks to tackle soon after arrival. These included visiting the municipal offices to register where we lived, go to the temple to pray for a safe season, and open a local bank account. The latter is annoying because we need to close the account in a couple of month's time. It would have been easier just to get paid in cash.

the tawdry local administrative offices where we had to register where we were living

to the temple to pray for a safe season

Japan Post Office, applying for a bank account

Part of our job is daily shovelling of snow, but this year we only need to shovel the entrances at the Winkel House and the main office. So instead of everyone shovelling each day we are doing a roster where we each only have to shovel twice a week. Crazily, I had some pushback from one of the 18 year olds thinking she'd been imposed upon. She has no idea how much easier this arrangement is, than when we all had to shovel around all the accommodation villas each morning as well!!

Snow fall has been low this year, with many resorts either yet to open, or open with limited terrain. Off trail skiing is still too dangerous, with bamboo grass still exposed and likely to catch a ski. We went to Kokusai on an orientation outing, which had lovely pillowy snow on the black and red runs, but not enough down the bottom to run the magic carpet, and another orientation day at Kiroro, where the bottom was OK but the tops still had very patchy cover.


It's been bloody cold though, with temperatures up the mountains below -10. With high winds the chill factor has blown out to -30. I learnt my lesson at Kokusai and rugged up with down pants and jacket under my ski gear for the day at Kiroro. Kiroro was definitely not skiing its best yet.

Asari was yet to open, but since we had beginner lessons booked, the resort opened the magic carpet and beginner run just for us to run our lessons for 2 days. I wasn't teaching, just providing transport pickup and drop-off, so I took the opportunity to go for a few short runs.

First turns at Asari

It was a week or so of waiting for work to come in. With Asari closed I had one of my lessons cancelled, and there wasn't much opportunity to free ski either. Once we started working, the snow started falling as well, and a few days after the carpet opened for our beginners, Asari opened all their lifts. I've had a real mix of lessons so far, driving to Kokusai, Kiroro and Teine. Teine has the least snow, with many pebbles exposed. Scratched ski bases is a very uncommon occurrence in Japan, evidenced by Fujiisan asking Jasper about the PTex repair on his skis. The kiwi tradition of having a dedicated pair of "rock skis" is completely foreign!!

We have a Christmas tree, which Hazel helped put up and decorate, and we all gathered for Christmas Eve with Fujiisan and his family, plus a few of the office staff. We had the usual feast, with a decidedly Japanese bent, and did Secret Santa, which was lots of fun as we were allowed the option of stealing someone else's present or selecting from the tree.

Lessons have been great. Mostly Asian customers, from Hong Kong, Philippines, Thailand, China and the US, with one premium private lesson for three days with a lovely lass from Sydney. It's been a mix of complete first timers to intermediate and advanced skiers, kids, adults and the occasional family where the skill acquisition rate diverges pretty quickly between the kids and the adults!! Juggling different levels within a single lesson is something I can handle quite easily now, a far cry from my first trip here 4 years ago and only just out of my first season of teaching at Cardrona.

There have been some very trying times living with the teenagers, who are having their first experience living away from home, and dealing with a new culture as well. Cleaning up after themselves doesn't come naturally, which has caused some tension. As much as I understand that their complete indifference to the consequences of leaving mess around, ie it inconveniences others having to work around it, comes from a state of ignorance not provocation, it is nevertheless causing me considerable annoyance, as I'm the only one who really calls them out on it. Julian and Ella can remain the nice guys because they don't have to live with the squalor.

We have two staff cars this year to use for work trips, and to use for personal use like going to the supermarket. Longer personal trips are at our own expense, and day trips or longer require asking permission ahead of time from Fujiisan. Julian and Ella hire their own car for the duration so they have complete freedom and don't need to ask permission, but the teenagers appeared to have an attitude that they could use the work cars for any old jaunt and just write that they had been to the supermarket in the log book. Grumpy old me watered down that sense of entitlement pretty quickly, causing yet another layer of resentment against the old lady in the house! Unfortunately, they didn't listen, and went off on a road trip to Sapporo without permission and sideswiped another car. This caused an issue with insurance as they were on a private trip without permission. The driver has been banned from driving the office vehicles for a month and they all got a sharp talking to from a pretty angry Fujiisan (though of course being Japanese it was all very polite..)

Within their teenage bubble they are no doubt struggling to understand, or even take notice of, the nuances of the Japanese culture they are living with. Working for a Japanese company rather than a western one, means learning to respect one's bosses and attempting to conform with the expectations that our Japanese colleagues expect of us. A lack of interest in taking the initiative to learn a few greetings and the like is at least ameliorated by Fujiisan making a huge effort writing out sayings and explaining the cultural nuances of greeting colleagues. He also explained the various sayings around New Year, which is a special event in Japan characterised by going to the shrine with family and not going out on the town and getting drunk! Plans to go do karaoke on New Years Eve were scuppered by everything being closed, no bus services, and no taxis either. A slumber party and a movie ended up being the compromise....

Yeah! Try getting your mouth around that!!

I also had to explain that ignoring the boss when he politely asked twice that your uniform should be taken off after work and hung up so it doesn't get dirty was a sign of disrespect. Of course she had no idea, since ignoring one's elders in western culture is normal when you are 18!

After a busy couple of weeks from December 20, the work has dried up. There is talk of perhaps subcontracting to ClubMed, which continues to have more work than they have instructors for, whilst the Kiroro Ski Academy and Winkel have very little booked until the build up to Chinese New Year in February. It's given us all the opportunity to get lots of free skiing in, especially as the snow dumped in epic proportions in the first week of January and the powder has been so much fun to ski in!

With no work on the horizon it gives me the opportunity to go road tripping, since I have the money to not have to work to support myself. That's the main reason I decided to work for Winkel, so I can take the opportunity to free ski during the down periods. We get free lift tickets at Kiroro and Asari, but have to pay at other resorts. Unfortunately, even the much cheaper lift ticket prices in Japan aren't really within the  youngsters' budgets.

View over Otaru Bay from the top lift at Asari

View down to Kiroro base buildings from about a third of the way up the mountain

Yes we've had quite a bit of snow....

We are still waiting on confirmation of the Club Med deal. It's been a while since anyone has had work so our next pay checks won't be huge once two months of rent is deducted. Fujiisan kindly didn't deduct rent from our first pay as we'd only worked for one week at that stage, but at some point it needs to be paid. I still had money from my trip 4 years ago, so I've been able to keep ahead on the payments. I can't imagine any of this is encouraging any of the youngsters to consider returning again!!

I've rented a car for a 7 day trip to Central Hokkaido, and have booked accommodation at Furano and Asahikawa, so I can check out a few different ski fields. Unfortunately the snow forecast for the week I'm there is looking a little dry, but I'm sure whatever it's like it will be better skiing than NZ! I also hope to catch up with friends in Furano.

That's next!