As you may be aware, I required 2 further bouts of surgery and lost my central vision after developing a macular hole, so it was not until the second week of January that I was at last gas free. Although I flew home to Australia in late October for 10 days, there was still a small amount of residual gas present. But I was yet to have any meaningful sight in the eye as the treatment caused a thick cataract to develop, which then had to be removed to allow for the third surgery in November.
With such a prolonged period with restrictions on my movements, I was pretty keen to get back skiing this northern hemisphere winter with a trip to Japan. When I told Harry in December that I wanted to go skiing in February, he was extremely supportive, but was unable to schedule the final surgery to replace my lens before then. Instead he suggested I see an optometrist and get a contact lens, go skiing, and then get the final lens replacement on my return.
So that is exactly what I did. My eyesight in the left eye is far from perfect, with considerable distortion of my central vision, but the peripheral vision is pretty good, meaning I can see the trees on both sides when I'm skiing between them!!
An intensive 8 days of tramping was my only real preparation for 2 weeks in the Japanese powder, I just had to hope it was enough.
I flew from Dunedin to Sydney, stayed at Kathy's place in Coledale, then we headed up to Sydney again the following evening for our overnight flight to Tokyo and on to Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido. First stop the spa at the airport, for our first of many onsen experiences. Hair shampooed and conditioned, a warm soak in the baths, and a few refreshing cups of tea later we were ready to hit Sapporo city.
We'd arrived at the start of the annual snow and ice festival, so we had lots to see. Last time I had visited the festival on its final day and it had been a warm winter so the sculptures were past their best, but this time they were just being finished. In fact we were too early to see the finished sculptures from the international competition, but we still managed to pick what ended up being the winner.
Odori Park hosted the large snow and ice sculptures, and at night they were lit up, which was quite spectacular.
In nearby Susukino were the ice sculptures. Much more intricate.
We also did a little shopping, sampled some sake and dined at some cute izakaya restaurants. We revisited Ramen Alley, but really enjoyed our meal in a small place where they spoke no English besides "are you hungry?" and just kept offering more dishes until we answered no!
Then it was on to Kutchan via subway and train, where we picked up our trusty steed "Crumpet" for getting around in. It's got rusty panels, some of the doors don't open, there's no sound system, it smells, but it starts every time and gets us where we want to go. And it was cheap!
We are staying in an ex-elementary school run by a middle aged couple which runs back to nature adventure programs for kids and adults, mostly in summer. It's pretty cold everywhere but in our room, where we keep the heater cranked up. It's made bearable if we go find an onsen to bathe in each day rather than use the showers in the freezing bathroom! And we have been trying lots of different onsens, a different one every day. My skin is as soft as a baby's bottom!!
We came to Japan to ski, and since we arrived we haven't seen the sun at all. We've had tiny windows of sunshine for a few minutes maximum, but mostly it has been dumping down at a spectacular rate and consistency. Needless to say the skiing has been sensational!
My previous trips to Japan had been marred by injury and less than average snow conditions, but this year the weather gods have delivered in spades. We have to dig our car out every morning, but that's a small price to pay for the joy of fresh pow in the trees.
We have friends who live in Kutchan and the usual procedure is to meet up for coffee at one of the mountain huts at Niseko mid morning, compare notes then do a bit more skiing. Its been great to get shown the off piste tree runs as it takes time to work out the contours of what is a huge mountain made up of multiple interlinking resorts. We mostly skied at Hirafu and Hanazono, because the snow has been so good and when you can still find nice fresh snow to ride, why go elsewhere?
We've also visited Rusutsu, which is quieter and more cruisy with well spaced trees for charging down. It's also given us the opportunity to visit some more onsens!
We have taken some down time, driving to Otaru one day through a blizzard, to visit the lantern festival and gorge on a massive feed of seafood and noodles.
But mostly we have skied and bathed in a different onsen every day. Nothing quite like hard physical exercise in the cold smashing pow for a few hours followed by immersing oneself in a warm mineral bath and relaxing... The best two things about Japan, every day. What's not to love about it?
Our final day we bought an all mountain pass and headed over to Annupuri from Hanazono. We got the most awesome powder runs on our way across as we jagged the lifts well to get first tracks. However, the decision to stop for a very mediocre coffee in Annupuri cost us dearly, as the wind picked up and closed the top lifts required for us to ski back. Instead we had to take the bus of shame back to Hirafu Gondola, where we could ski the final leg back to Hanazono. One more onsen later and our trip was over.
The trip to Japan has been a great success. It's been such a wonderful experience to be back on skis again and to have such superb conditions as well. It's been well worth the wait.
Just one more onsen at the airport before we leave....