Thursday, February 25, 2016

Honshu socks ski goddess a shiner!

After a couple of rainy days in Otaru without any skiing, I woke to find new snow had fallen overnight. But it was time to head south to Honshu, with a scenic train ride through Sapporo to New Chitose Airport, then a 1.5 hour flight to Tokyo's Haneda Airport.

Rather than negotiate at least 4 train connections with my luggage during the evening peak hour I chose to book a minibus transfer from the airport to my Ryokan in Yudanaka. It took a good deal longer than a train ride would have, was a little more expensive, but was completely hassle free. A chap met me at the arrival gate, wheeled my luggage to the van and loaded it, we picked up a bunch of other passengers at three other locations, then made our way towards Nagano then on to Yudanaka, dropping off the other passengers en route. We even stopped regularly for toilet and meal breaks.

I arrived at the Ryokan a little before midnight, pulled the skis and boots out of my bag so I didn't have to schlepp them upstairs to my room, woke up my room-mate (Charlotte, whom I'd shared with last year), put on my PJs, and went straight to bed.

Next morning I met the rest of the crew. I have joined half way through a tour, so whilst the others have already got to know each other, I'm still learning their names. Jason is away up north guiding a twin island tour, but my friend Kathy was there to greet me, along with 3 other guides: Yuki, Keith and Jack. Yuki I'd met before in New Zealand, from where Jason had employed her. In fact we'd even hitched up to the mountain one day in the same car.

Jack was nominally the boss whilst Jason was away, something that may have miffed Keith as the most senior in age, though Jack has more recent ski patrol experience, even though he's only 19. Keith was a ski professional in his twenties before settling down into a career in the financial/business sector, from which he has recently left. Spending a few months in Japan ski guiding is his chance to think about his future direction. Ah, we all have so many forks in our life paths don't we?

The first day we skied at Yokote, which is the highest ski field within the Shiga Kogen complex of ski resorts. The snowfall in Honshu hasn't been very good this year, and they also just had rain, so off piste cover is very patchy. We spent the day skidding over wind scoured ice or turning in soft 20cm wind drifted snow. Every turn was either one or the other. Not fun, more survival.

I must have performed particularly badly on my first day for the ski guides (not surprising given the conditions were appalling after skiing deep pow on Hokkaido for the last 3 weeks) so the next day I was put in Yuki's group - the group for the slower, less competent riders and skiers. I didn't mind as the off piste was pretty scratchy and there were a number of clients on the trip who were powder hungry for whatever they could get. Let them go hard on pretty crappy terrain, I'll just stick to the piste until the conditions improve. Plus, our group were cruisy, and fun to hang out with.

We headed to Madurao, expecting another bad day, but instead discovered they'd had fresh snow overnight and the snow began falling again mid morning. In fact it puked down. We skied knee deep pow along the edge of piste runs, slipped in to some cruisy tree runs and hooned down this awesome natural pipe, and then in the afternoon we did it all again as the snow continued to puke down. It was an amazingly fun day, with a great bunch of skiers and boarders.

Day three we headed back to Madurao to smash that pow a bit more. It was a bluebird day, so we headed up the single chair to the top and scared ourselves shitless doing a fast blind traverse across to another lovely tree run. Our little group splintered into smaller groups as some got overwhelmed by the tricky traverse, but I skied it twice more before heading over to the natural pipe for another exhilarating run, then caught up with Kathy for a few more runs before lunch. Then we did it all again in the afternoon. Another fun day, followed by sushi train in the nearby town of Nakano.

Day four, and no new snow, was spent at Nosawa Onsen skiing the piste. I was still with Yuki's crew and we had a fun time powering down the long Skyline run from the top of the mountain down to the village, whilst some of the other groups tried to find a few fresh patches amongst the trees up high. I was enjoying getting my Soul 7s on their edges and carving some turns rather than scratching for pickings in the trees. I've had a bit of a love hate relationship with these skis, but at last I'm feeling comfortable skiing them in most conditions. Another fun day, topped off with a few boutique beers in a pub in the village.

Day 5 the group I had been skiing with were all leaving, aside from my roomie Charlotte, but we were joined by Richard, a Kiwi from Central Otago in New Zealand. Keith drove our small group up to Shiga Kogen, where the wind had closed many of the gondolas, but we still found some good slopes to shred, albeit en piste and rather firm.

Day 6 and a new crew had arrived, whilst Charlotte had left. I stayed with Keith as my guide and we skied Shiga Kogen again, however the wind had scoured the runs and they were icier than the day before, whilst the off piste was as hard as a rock. Even the hard core stayed out of the trees that day!

Day 7, with 5-10cm of fresh snow overnight, we headed to Madurao again. I skied with Jack, along with 2 young Austrian skiers and Kiwi Richard. The Austrian boys, born with skis on their feet, were a joy to watch as they launched off any lip they could find, often landing switch, and really giving young Jack a run for his money. Richard and I took up the rear, enjoying some nice tree runs and a few loops through the natural pipe again. A day of laughter and fun. That evening Kathy and I headed out to a local pub for gyoza and beer whilst the others went to sushi train.

Day 8 we returned to Yokote, and nearby Kumanoya. A bluebird day, and crusty conditions, so piste skiing again. Hooning down the steeps on my Soul 7s now seems so easy! The views were pretty awesome from the restaurant at the top of the mountain too.

Day 9, my final ski day, we headed back to Shiga Kogen, this time with more fresh snow overnight. A 25cm top up had made the trees skiable again, but emerging back onto the piste runs could be treacherous. The Japanese love their moguls, and there is often a zip line down one side of a piste run. The new snow had filled in the bumps, disguising their whereabouts, but hadn't softened them one bit! After skiing soft pow under the chairlift I came out onto the piste, hit a hard bump at speed and ejected out of both skis, careening headfirst down the slope. Ouch!  My goggles jammed between my helmet and cheek, resulting in one black eye!!

After that little accident I elected to leave Jack with his madcap Austrians, and joined Keith's group for the rest of the day. Still searching for pow amongst the trees, but at a cruiser pace. Not surprisingly, one of the Austrian lads managed to collide with a tree, all captured on his GoPro too!

So that's it for my Honshu ski adventure. Despite the lack of snow for any decent off piste skiing I had a fun time with great people, discovered a few more ski resorts, and especially enjoyed staying at the Ryokan again. Awesome meals and an onsen every day makes this ski bum very happy.

Day 10 I headed back to Tokyo. Now that was an adventure in itself!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Niseko Explorer Tour Feb 2016

After what can only be described as a pretty miserable skiing experience up in Central Hokkaido, and suffering a filthy hangover from too much sake and beer at our farewell dinner, I boarded a bus back to Sapporo airport. And yes, one of those ski patrollers was on the same bus and didn't even acknowledge me. Kind of reinforces what I thought of that particular man's character from the start....

At Sapporo Airport I transferred to another bus which took me to Niseko. Halfway we stopped for a toilet and snack break, and as I got up to leave the bus I heard through my hungover fog someone calling my name. Who else but a BFF's sister on the same bus! Small world...

At Hirafu I got taken to the Full Note Pension where I am staying for 7 nights. I went straight to bed with a bottle of water, just emerging to greet my two new roomies, who are on a slightly different tour to me. They are both lovely women, and I'm a bit sad I won't be skiing with them as they are both very relaxed.

As it turns out my group consists of seven skiers and two boarders. Like on the Furano trip we have 2 guides: one a snowboarder, the other a skier, both also Thredbo patrollers. Brett and Keith, however, are older and a bit more experienced, and our group consists of 2 skier couples, two 66 year old snowboarders from Kuuai, and two other single skiers besides me. Both the girls in the couples are less strong skiers than their partners, so that's likely to stop too much aggression developing in the group.

Our first day we skied at Niseko. I started off in a really positive mood, went flying down a bumpy off piste run and ran straight in to a large ice ball and went ass over tit. Turns out ice cookies exist in Japan too, when they fall out of trees when the weather warms a bit. Oh well, up I got and kept skiing. Then Bruce, one of my fellow skiers collided with me. It can be a bit difficult skiing in a group when some skiers traverse rather than ski the fall line. If I know I'm going to take my time getting down I'll stay back and let the enthusiastic ones go first, but in this case I was happily skiing the fall line when Bruce came in from one side and put me off balance.

So after I got up from the Bruce collision we skied some more. I was still tired and hungover from my previous ski trip, and with quite a few long traverses and a few more falls I was exhausted. But a good day.

Day 2 we went to Rusutsu. Brett didn't want to guide all seven skiers, so Bruce and I were relegated to ski-ing with the snowboarders in the morning, and then Bruce headed off back with the skiers in the afternoon when I and the boarders decided to stop early.  Although I was skiing the off piste,  I was still falling a lot, and my ski confidence remained pretty shot, especially on the long traverses out to the piste which could be fast, bumpy and quite hairy.

Day 3 we went to Kiroro. Bruce had defected back to the skier group, and Brett had been replaced by Wilko, as a guide at Furano had bunged his knee and Brett headed up there to fill in. I was still with Keith and the two elder snowboarders, and we headed off the gondola into thigh deep pow. I unfortunately ejected a ski after 3 turns, got back into it, ejected it again, got back in, then got caught in a deep snowdrift trying to traverse out into a glade and had to dig myself out. Meanwhile my group had abandoned me so I at last made it down to the valley floor (after one more double ejection) and skied out the traverse track myself and waited at the gondola for Keith and the boys to return. My confidence was shot! Then I skied one more run before lunch, had another run or two with them after lunch, then Wilko took me for some runs by myself to get my confidence back.

Wilko was great. First we skied on the piste getting me to ski with both my feet instead of transferring weight the way you do when carving, then he found some nice tree free glades with fresh pow to practice on. Skiing my boots rather than trying to turn my skis through the trees seemed to be the piece of advice that worked the best, but after a couple of runs fatigue from digging myself out of numerous falls and getting upright again in thick snow took its toll, so I gave up for the day.

It wasn't a great day, but Wilko's help and advice in the afternoon really made a huge difference. As did going for a massage with my old friend Mariko.

Day 4 was a miserable foggy day at Niseko with no fresh snowfall overnight. Visibility was dreadful. The snowboarders opted for a day off, so Keith took the skiers, whilst Wilko took me for a private session. We found some nice untracked terrain off in the Hanazono region, but the visibility was crap and the upper lifts were on wind hold, so I was happy to give up after lunch, though the rest of the skiers kept going despite the abysmal conditions.

It's not just because I've got a month skiing in Japan, but because I no longer have ski fever, that I'm happy to just ski when the conditions are good and to give up when I'm tired. Doing entire ski seasons has changed my attitude away from needing to squeeze every hour out of my ski ticket. Just because I've paid for it all doesn't mean I need to use it all. I can enjoy my holiday any way I like, and truthfully, I'm happy for it not to just be about skiing.

Day 5 we headed back to Rusutsu. I asked to stay with the skiers, as I felt that Wilko's encouragement had helped me get over my confidence hump, whereas Keith is naturally a more dour personality. Plus, snowboarders pick slightly different terrain to go down, needing steeper fall lines to keep their speed up. While I'm getting used to tree skiing, I don't need massive speed at the same time.

And I absolutely caned it! Wilko couldn't believe it! I was often the second or third down to the bottom, skiing straight down the fall line, especially as the trees are quite widely spaced at Rusutsu, so it's not so trippy. I went from being the slowest to one of the fastest, just by getting my confidence back. I'd said to Wilko that my problem was primarily psychological, and today I proved it. It felt so good to have my mojo back.

In the evening I met up with Akane. So good to see my friend again.

Day 6 we went to Moiwa, which is the next resort around the mountain from Annupuri, where I'd stayed last year. We found fresh lines all day, it was an absolutely cracker of a day, although I did have a nasty fall onto my shoulder when my skis got caught up getting off the chairlift.

Day 7 we packed our bags and headed to Kiroro again. The forecast is for rain the next 2 days, so this is likely to be our last chance of decent skiing. And I had a demon to exorcise, as Kiroro earlier in the week had been my worst day. Well it hadn't snowed for a few days, and unlike last year when there were far fewer Westerners, the place was heaving with them, so finding fresh lines was a little more tricky. But Wilko delivered most of the day and that dragon was well and truly slain. Those traverses out are still freaking scary, but skiing through the trees in untracked, and even tracked up, snow is something I now feel more confident with.

My group this trip is much more cruisy. Sure a few of the guys were adrenaline junkies, but they either had wives to think about, or weren't that skilled to be able to push the agenda to harder and faster, unlike on my Furano trip. So I was able to not only keep up, but often be one of the faster ones. I still had a few ejections, mostly when I got tired and didn't compress my knees enough to absorb a bump or soft patch of snow, but instead pitched forwards, releasing my bindings. I'm reluctant to tighten up the bindings, preferring to improve my technique instead. It is tiring getting up after a fall, but it's better than a major knee injury....

After Kiroro we headed to Otaru, which is a port on the Sea of Japan, where we are staying at the swanky Grand Park Hotel for 3 nights. As the only single girl I've lucked in on a room to myself! That evening we headed in to the old district for dinner, viewed the candle festival in the canals, and found a cute little cocktail bar.

Day 8 it was raining as expected, so we did a little shopping and went to Yoichi to visit the Nikka Whisky Distillery for lunch and tastings.

Day 9, our final day, it's still raining. A few of the crew headed off to Kokusai to ski the piste - not my preferred option with fat skis and with a knee that's still swollen. It only causes pain trying to straighten it or twist it, so I elected to rest again and ice it up. Watch a movie and update my blog.

Our final night we headed out for a farewell dinner at an all you can eat crab restaurant and then the following morning took a train from Otaru to Chitose Airport to fly to Tokyo for my next adventure.

So, in summary, this trip has been a much better trip. Nicer crew, more experienced helpful guides, less gnarly terrain, and help to get over my loss of confidence in my skiing. I'm back to skiing easily in the fresh pow, not finding the heavier snow a problem, and am almost comfortable in the trees. I'm yet to feel less than scared on those narrow traverses out though....

Roll on the next adventure....

Friday, February 5, 2016

Central Hokkaido Tour Jan-Feb 2016

My first day in Japan was spent travelling to Furano, which is in Central Hokkaido. That was the last post.

Day one of our ski trip we went skiing at the nearby Furano ski field. We'd had fresh snow overnight, and it snowed on and off all day. Our groups split up into a ski group and a snowboarding group and headed up the ropeway. We did a couple of runs on the groomed slopes, nice and cruisy, quite steep but nothing gnarly, and then headed into the trees.

First it was OK. The snow was lovely and soft and I had a couple of good runs, and then the runs seemed to get narrower, steeper and bumpier, and I started getting tired. So off to the gypsies went my confidence and technique. I was hitting bumps, getting air, falling into ditches, ejecting out of my skis, struggling to get upright again in deep snow, yeah it was exhausting…

It didn't help that I was skiing in a group of men, 3 of whom were ski patrollers at Perisher, and keen to go hard and fast. Even at the top of my game I was never going to keep up. A fourth was a kiwi skier who was feeding off the adrenaline of the other three, which left me and Lyndsay, a 63 year old from the Central Coast of NSW, to bring up the rear. Lindsay may have been slower than me, but he had more confidence, and often helped me up after my numerous falls. The others just waited impatiently at the bottom for us to catch up.

Day two we headed off to Kamui Links. Here I had a good day, especially in the morning tree skiing off the back and then traversing back to the chairlift. By the afternoon I was shattered, so I left the boys to it and finished early.

Day three was back at Furano, skiing some lovely lines in knee deep powder. I was starting to get the rhythm of it all when bang! I twisted my knee and down I went. With pain in the front and side of my knee I knew I hadn't done anything too serious and I could still traverse out and ski down to the base where I booked in to see a physio. Looks like I've got a mild medial ligament sprain, and exacerbation of my old meniscal injury from years ago, which should be fine to ski on with a little strapping, icing to keep the swelling down and the wearing of my knee brace (lucky I packed it!).

Day 4 was a rest day. Not much to report. Iced the knee and went to a Japanese barbecue restaurant for dinner.

Day 5 back at Furano. The rest of the crew headed to Asahidake, but I stayed in town for the day, doing some  piste skiing and taking it easy. Went back to the physio in the afternoon for another session and more strapping. Conclusion is the ligament sprain is very minor, it's mostly just a meniscal injury, so as long as I can keep the swelling down all will be well.

Day 6 again at  Furano. My confidence off piste has gone south so I ditched my guide for the day, letting him concentrate on the rest of the group whilst I concentrated on getting centred again on my skis and skiing the sides of the piste runs and a few bumps. I tried a tree run, but it wasn't pretty. I'm yet to get used to seeing the gaps. After lunch our guide tried to take me down a tree run with the rest of the crew but I politely refused, and instead ended up on a gnarly, bumpy, ungroomed black run that was probably harder to negotiate than the tree run I'd just refused to go on. The good news is that the knee feels good, despite swelling up at the end of the day.

Truth is the boys in the group have completely psyched me out. Being so much better skiers than me, with no fear and lots of aggression, I just feel a total loser. They feed off each other and the testosterone flying around is as intimidating as hell. I am now skiing worse than I was a year ago.

Even our tour guide Seb, a 24 year old ski patroller from Thredbo, isn't much help, mainly as any time he spends trying to help me is resented by the rest of the group. And let's face it, skiing hard with a bunch of fit, enthusiastic skiers beats dealing with a scared old lady with a bung knee.

Day 7 was a rest day. A few went skiing and a few of us headed in to Furano town, a kilometre or so away from the resort area,  to do a little shopping. We found a little shrine, some good souvenir stores, I found some hand made wooden spoons, and then we found an artisan coffee shop. Damn nice coffee can be found in the sticks of Central Hokkaido.

Day 8 saw us head to Tomamu. Despite protests from our guys that the snow was better at Furano so why go elsewhere. Well chaps, because the tour doesn't just include you selfish bastards, and some of the snowboard crew were having similar issues with being dumped by the better boarders and left to their own devices.

Tomamu is a huge resort where large parts of the infrastructure have been abandoned as the money has gone out of skiing and snowboarding. Huge accommodation complexes lie deserted, lifts and gondola towers are neglected beyond repair, but there's still huge amounts of terrain to explore. It's less steep and much more open, and we managed to find some great untouched terrain most of the day. I gave up just before 2pm due to exhaustion, and let the rest of the guys enjoy the rest of the day without me falling over continuously. Once I get tired, it's best I just stop. After all, I have a whole month here, not a mere 10 days like most of the people on my trip.

Needless to say, everyone had a great day skiing untouched pow all day, despite the morning protests. We stopped in at the swimming pool complex (complete with wave pool, SUPs, onsen and all sorts of beach oriented paraphernalia) to have a peek, before driving back to Furano.

Day 9 back at Furano, this time with sunshine, and after one begrudging run down one small tree run up the top of the hill we managed to lose Lyndsay. The boys were keen to go off and ski more gnarly terrain as they had "unfinished business" so I told them I'd just fuck off and do my own thing and let them enjoy the services of the ski guide that gee, I'd paid for too. Seb offered to take me for some runs by myself just before lunch and then very thoughtlessly told me that the others felt that people like Lyndsay and me shouldn't be allowed on trips like this because we couldn't keep up. Well that really helped my confidence didn't it, so I pretty well told Seb to fuck off back to his boys too.

In the afternoon I ended up doing some runs with the snowboarders, mostly with Chris, a GP from Brisbane, and did a number of small tree runs, taking our time and really enjoying myself. No pressure, just cruising, no negativity. I just wish they'd done the groups a bit differently I might just have enjoyed my trip a lot more.

So in conclusion, my trip to Central Hokkaido was pretty crap. I injured myself trying to keep up with people who were far too aggressive skiers for me. Instead of splitting the groups on ability they split them between skiers and boarders, which didn't work well for either group. I lost my confidence early, and then that fickle little monster fear crept in, and continued to haunt me since.

Next trip, hopefully things will improve. Though I still have a swollen knee....