Thursday, February 27, 2020

Cultural immersion in Hokkaido

A big drawcard for me in accepting this particular job in Japan was that I would be working for a small Japanese company, at a ski resort not over run by foreigners (ie Australians!) and would be living and working amongst Japanese nationals. Anyone who knows how much I love to live like the locals when I go travelling can see that this opportunity was right up my street....

A couple of days after arriving I needed to go to the local municipal council office and register as a local resident. Every person in Japan has to do this, and must register again every time they move to a new residence. The office has huge books full of street maps, so they can identify exactly which house you are living in. Kind of Big Brother, but that's just the way it is.

Our staff house had a mixture of long and short term residents, both Japanese and international. It was the meeting place for various gatherings, in particular the weekly English language class that Alex hosted. Although "hosted" was a rather loose term, because every week the Japanese staff would descend with copious quantities of food and alcohol, and cook up a veritable feast before lessons began. One of the Japanese instructors, Kuroda-san, baked a chiffon cake each week, topped with lots of cream. My favourite was the matcha flavoured one. Matcha flavoured desserts are so good....

Not a huge amount of formal lessons eventuated, but lots of conversational English made up for it. Here is a selection of food porn for you....

One day Yonehana-san, our big boss, was given some Cod by a fisherman friend, so his wife and Yamada-san (our resident chef) cooked up an amazing banquet, using all parts of the fish. The Shirako (look it up!) were spectacularly delicious. Who knew??

In January we attended the local school's Mochi festival. Mochi are pounded rice cakes, and this local festival has been around for a very long time, with all the school kids, parents and grandparents from the local community getting involved in making and eating them. We were invited because our boss's children went to the school, but with falling attendance, the school was closing down at the end of the school year. I'm glad I got to experience it, and everyone was so welcoming even though it was to be the final time.

A visit to Hokkaido is not complete without a visit to the Sapporo Snow Festival, unfortunately marred this year by warm temperatures and a lack of snow. But still fun, and I managed not to catch Covid-19 whilst there!

Closer to home Otaru hosts it's own snow festival, as does Winkel Village. This is because our boss, Yonehana-san, is on the local tourism board and thought up the idea a few years back. So we have a whole bunch of volunteers staying in the village, including some staying at our house, from Japan and Korea, helping out with the festivities. I had been to Otaru's Yuki Akari no Michi before, but had no idea of it's extent or origins.

Finally, a visit to Japan isn't complete without a visit to an onsen. Asari is an onsen town, so we had access to a number of local onsens at discounted rates, including one in the hotel next door. Needless to say I visited pretty regularly during my stay.

But all good things come to an end, and with a trek in Australia planned for the end of February, I bid goodbye to my new friends in Japan and flew back to Australia a mere wing and a prayer in front of a building pandemic.

That's next....

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

A little work and a lot of play

The reason I accepted the job in Japan was the promise that I wouldn't get too much work. I was after a cheap holiday, not a healthy bank balance. And with Chinese New Year falling towards the end of January, I expected to get quite a bit of free time to go skiing. At that stage COVID-19 wasn't really a factor, but once Japan banned all flights from China there was certainly no more business coming from that direction!

When I didn't have work scheduled, I often joined the others at Kiroro for free skiing. I came over in the staff car, got a free ski pass for the day, and explored the mountain whilst the others taught lessons. At first, some of the mountain was still closed due to poor snow cover, and off piste exploration was limited. By February there was more snow and probably the best snow cover of all the resorts in Hokkaido so I had a few ripper days there

My room mate's mother was working as an instructor at Furano, so Alex, Ellie and I headed up there for a 3 day mini break. We skied a bit, and sampled pastries at the numerous pastry shops between ski runs. Snow cover at Furano was pretty poor compared to last time I had been there, but we still managed to have lots of fun.

Another day we took Julian and Ella's daughter to Sapporo Teine for the day. This involved lots of skiing, including down the most gnarly runs, a visit to the dinosaur play area and the funfair (the latter felt super creepy as it was deserted), and a surprise visit to the Sapporo Chocolate Factory on the way home. One lucky six year old!

My good mate Kate was on holiday staying at Rusutsu, so I drove over there for the day to ski with her and give her a few pointers. Kate's skiing career got off to a very rocky start when she went on a girl's trip to NZ a few years back and they coaxed her up a slope, in a blizzard, that she wasn't quite ready to ski down. We had a fun morning skiing terrain Kate was comfortable on and working on her turns. Then I did a few runs with her partner Geoff before the drive back to Asari.

I did a day trip to Kokusai, coinciding with a fresh dump of snow (see below photo for how deep it was). I had the added bonus of being able to buy a discounted ski pass due to being 55 years old! The passes get cheaper the older you are...


My Alaskan friend, Jennifer, was in Japan for a couple of weeks, so I got a lift over to Niseko with Lyndsay, who had work there, and went skiing with her for a couple of days. It coincided with some fresh snow, so we took advantage of the mint conditions and spent most of our time out of the gates in the side country. I also caught up with lots of Cardrona colleagues, not surprising given how many of them work there! And an amusing note: I had to return to Asari by train as Lyndsay ended up working an extra day at Niseko. I hadn't brought a ski bag with me, and Japanese trains and buses prohibit you travelling with skis unless they are in a bag. But wrapping them in cling wrap is totally acceptable


One day we did a work trip to a field north of Sapporo called Mount Racey. A couple of our Japanese colleagues were going to be teaching school groups there so the whole team went with the boss on a free junket, and had fun exploring the terrain. Fujiisan took some photos of us skiing, and I took one of Alex outside an appropriately named rest area!

Besides skiing, I got to enjoy so many Japanese cultural experiences. Many of these were centred around meals in the community house, but others were festivals, both local and regional.

More on that next...