Friday, February 6, 2015
Ski Goddess misadventures in Japan
Japan is amazing. Not only is the snow insanely thick and fluffy and lovely to ski on, but the culture is just so damn adorable. I mean who can't like a place that has heated toilet seats?
After resolving the money issue (interestingly, the card worked fine the next day in a Citibank ATM at the international terminal) I met up with my fellow ski travellers at Starbucks, waited a few hours for everyone to arrive and then headed off by trains to Nagano. The time window to transfer from Nagano station to the small train to Yudanaka was pretty tiny, and with 13 people with wheeled ski luggage it looked to be an impossible feat, so instead our hotel picked us up in their bus. Loading all that baggage and ourselves into a 20 seater didn't look doable, but there was room to spare and soon we were heading up into the snowy hills to our ryokan accommodation for the next six nights.
We are staying in a town called Yudanaka, which is near the ski resort of Shiga Kogen, a conglomerate of about twenty individual small ski fields which are connected either by trails or shuttle bus. It is the largest resort in Japan and we'll be exploring it and other resorts nearby over the next week. But first, the ryokan.
A ryokan is a traditional Japanese guest house, and although the foyer looks modern, it has lifts and hotel room doors, once you enter your room you are in an entirely different experience. First there is an entrance lobby, where you leave your shoes, and then you step up onto a wooden floor, slide open the screen door and there is your little tatami matted room, complete with rice paper screens, which open onto a small enclosed balcony, with a view out over the valley. A small toilet is hidden off the balcony, and a bathroom off the entrance lobby.
Aside from the small table and cushion chairs, there is no furniture, though the balcony concedes to western comforts with two armchairs. Whilst at dinner, the table is pushed to one side and the bedding is laid out for us: futon mattresses and a lovely airy down quilt. There's extra futons in the cupboard, so you can choose your thickness by adding more than one. I'm sharing my room with a lass from Melbourne, and we've both settled on 2 futons each.
There's a huge bunch of us at the ryokan, as there are about 3 different tour groups all here, all booked with the same company but on different packages. It means that we can be split up into groups with similar abilities, so no-one is unhappy. More about that later...
The ryokan experience comes with some amazing meals. The dinners are exquisite, both in the variety of food offered and in the exceptional presentation. Not everything is delicious, but it's plentiful and certainly filling.
Breakfasts are equally delightful, whether Japanese or Western.
Finally, there is the onsen. Yudanaka, and nearby Shibu, are onsen towns, and our hotel has one that is supposedly hundreds of years old. An onsen is a public bath, and there is a special etiquette involved. First, get out of all your clothes and wrap yourself in the yukata (Japanese robe) supplied in your room. Then pop on your inside slippers, grab your large towel and small white towel supplied and head on down to the onsen. Leave your slippers outside with the onsen attendant and head on inside - they are gender segregated. Take off your yukata and put it in one of the baskets in little pigeon holes, leave your big towel there also. Then head on into the onsen room. Here there are little stools and showers and all sorts of beauty products for you to wash yourself with. You use your white towel to give yourself a damn good scrub, hose yourself down, and then you are clean enough to get in the baths. They have inside ones and outside ones, and if you are lucky, the onsen attendant will give you a massage. The boys have all been bragging about their massages, none of us girls have had the experience yet, but I discovered this morning when I went down for an onsen before breakfast that if you are the only woman in there the male attendant will give you a massage. Unfortunately I wasn't, so I didn't.
By the way, absolutely no clothes are allowed in the onsen, total nudity is expected. Even the little white towels must be kept out of the water. I love a culture that doesn't insist on "modesty clothing".
Of course everybody is so polite. Lots of bowing and hellos and thankyous, people smile and are friendly, you just can't help but like Japan.
So what about the skiing??
Well our first day we went to Shiga Kogen, and skiied around at the Ichinose area. I'd had a sleepless night, perhaps through excitement, but also because I couldn't get comfortable. 2 days of travel and then hauling our gear through the stations seems to have triggered some sciatica in my right leg, causing a burning sensation from the side of my thigh, around to the front and down to just below my knee. My back had been very sore after fixing up the chook run last weekend and I'd actually resorted to taking anti-inflammatories for a few days, but the sciatica was new. My back, by the way, feels fine.
I decided to give skiing a go, and headed out with the crew. I'd been put in a group with quite experienced skiers and boarders, but with new skis and an injury I wasn't feeling that confident. The first 2 runs were fine: warm up runs on piste, with lovely soft powder on the sides of the run to enjoy. It was heaven. Third run we decided to ski the lift line. This is "out of bounds" at Shiga Kogen, where basically anything that isn't a ski run is considered backcountry. This includes the trees between the runs, and a perfectly pristine run underneath the chairlift towers that was just begging for us to shred it up! Off a few of us headed into the trees. I got through the first gap and then made a sudden stop and ejected forward straight out of my bindings into thigh deep powder. Time to crank the DIN settings up! Getting back into my skis was rather an effort, and then it was down this beautiful little run. The powder was real deep and it wasn't long before I stacked it, and then spent ages trying to get up again and get down the run to the bottom. One more stack and recovery and I was down. But boy my thighs were burning. I wasn't fit enough for this!!
By the time I got down, Gordy our guide had decided to downgrade me to another group. I was happy with this as I needed to take it a bit easy and not go in too hard. Afterall, I've got 3 weeks of skiing ahead of me. So I skied back down to the chairlift and joined Kathy's group of more cruisy skiers who were happy to just ski on the piste for the day. I needed to get my ski legs back, and that thigh burn was wicked.
Over a few more runs I realised that alot of my pain was due to the sciatica. Not only was I getting burning pain when I tried to move forward to initiate my turns, but the pain was forcing me to put my weight back as straightening up hurt so much, hence more work for my thighs and calves than necessary. Also, less ski control and more potential for injury. Nevertheless, I persisted, though did take a break before lunch, and downed a few more anti-inflammatories.
After lunch our group headed out across to the gondola area which was really pretty, with heavily snow laden trees and we even saw some snow monkeys. Shiga Kogen is massive. Then we did this big long green run that snaked down the mountain and I misjudged a turn and skied into a snow wall. The others skied past me oblivious and by the time I recovered and got going again, then took a wrong turn, we'd lost each other. All turned out OK though, I found another group and made my way back to the boot up area.
By now I was in excruciating pain. I was unable to straighten up, I'd lost power in my right leg such that I couldn't even load my boot into my bindings without easing up the back bit, and I was back to skiing down a mountain like the bendy banana of a few seasons ago. Though I have to say, my ski ability must be pretty good by now, because actually getting back down that mountain given the extent of pain I was in was an accomplishment. Needless to say, it's not an accomplishment I wish to repeat!
Somehow I hobbled back to the bus, complete with beer in hand, who can't love a place that has beer in vending machines almost everywhere?
Then a long hot soak in the onsen, another exquisite Japanese banquet, a few whiskey and cokes to further anaesthetise me, and off to bed. I slept quite well, but even after an early onsen I was too stiff and sore to contemplate heading out into the snow. So I stayed back at the ryokan, slept, took some photos of the view, had another onsen and just relaxed. I'm also doing a few back exercises to try and loosen things up, but mostly, I just have to be patient.
One surprise was receiving a Facebook message from Saki, that she and Atsushi would be riding at Shiga Kogen, so they popped in to the ryokan at the end of the day. It's been 3 years since I last saw them in New Zealand, so it was great to catch up, if only briefly.
After another spectacular Japanese dinner I went to bed (the little ryokan elves that lay out your bed whilst you're at dinner have caught on, and each bed was two futons thick, yay) and spent quite a while doing back exercises and trying to loosen up the pain. The loosening seemed to be working, but the pain was increasing, and by morning, after very fitful sleep, I had almost hit the wall. I crawled out of bed, swallowed some voltaren and hit the onsen. I'm definitely much looser, in that I can now stand almost straight without thigh pain, but the knee pain persists and if anything has intensified. I've also got more pain in my back and hip, but I'm hoping this is a good sign that the exercises are working.
Meanwhile, the crew went to Nozawa Onsen. I could have gone, and had a day sightseeing, but I'm just not up to that yet, especially after the night's pain, when I was almost ready to pull the plug and go home. How the fuck I would have gotten home in my current state is quite another question. So I'm staying put. I've enough electronic gadgets with books, movies, music and podcasts, not to mention internet access, to keep me busy for days. Might as well do it here where I get my meals prepared and can have as many hot baths as I care to.
I'm slowly improving and after my afternoon onsen I began to experience pain free periods. However a long dinner with geisha show afterwards took its toll, as sitting for long periods only exascerbates the pain. I bowed out early, with profuse apologies to the geisha, hoping I can avoid any reversal in my recovery. The ryokan elves, however, weren't on the ball so I had to wait for my roommate to return to put the second futon on.
No such luck! Another painful sleepless night, though not as bad as the previous night, but I'm stiff, sore, and back to limping. The morning onsen gives me a pain free window, but it's mercilessly short as the heat becomes too much and you are forced to get out. I'm now swallowing some local medicine, supposedly ibuprofen mixed with caffeine, that the others got for me at a pharmacy yesterday, as I'm running out of voltaren. The ibuprofen dose per tablet is pretty low, so I may be chugging through a few of them, we'll just have to see what effect all that caffeine has!!
I'm determined to get out for a walk today. Greg, an American living in Invercargill NZ, has also taken a ski break so we are planning to head down to Shibu town to look for whiskey. Greg has codeine, I may need to do some drug seeking!!
Right, I've been writing this post for days. I'm off out to stretch my legs.