Crystal and I woke after 4 hours kip, shuffled out of our room, checked out, and flagged down a taxi. The door opened automatically, and the white-gloved gentleman driving enquired where we wanted to go. “Haneda Airport” I replied, and we headed off through the quiet streets of Tokyo that would soon be teeming with frantic and at times seemingly unhinged life.
The 6:35am JAL flight to Sapporo took almost 2 hours, as we arrived not long after 8am in Sapporo. From here we waited a short time with a small group of other skiiers and snowboarders for our coach to the resort. I bought a hot corn soup and a hot coffee to try and wake up, and chanced an onigiri that turned out to be filled with something very salty and fishy, though Crystal enjoyed it. After 20 minutes we were called to board our bus. Crystal and I were, predictably, the only foreigners, for Hokkaido is a place where few of them dwell. I imagined the JETs living in Sapporo must have an amazing time, pick up Japanese quickly, really immerse themselves in the culture, snowboard everyday in winter…..a very different life from mine in Osaka when I was a JET I’m sure. The bus journey took 2 hours, and provided some stunning mountainous vistas. We stopped once for a break, and Crystal and I hopped out and into snow. For Crystal, it was her first experience with snow, and I could sense the excitement, similar no doubt to my own when I first played with snow at the age of 4 or 5. Here, I bought some curry pans and an ‘American dog’, washed down with another hot vending machine cafe latte. Crystal and I were 2 minutes late to the coach….everyone else was there….the Japanese are strict timekeepers. We set off once more through the snowy white terrain.
After almost 2 hours, we arrived at Rusutsu resort, a huge place with a large hotel with 2 wings, 3 mountains with loads of different runs of various degrees of difficulty, a few good onsens (hot spring baths), some great restaurants, and loads of shops. It was a lovely self-contained place. We got off the bus to be greeted with a chorus of ‘Irrashaimase!’. At the hotel check-in desk, we saw Alex and Junko, dressed in ski wear, beaming smiles. Perfect timing. Junko, who had kindly arranged everything, was relieved everything had gone to plan. We checked in, and went to our room. The room was 4015, and commanded some breathtaking views from the balcony over one of the mountains. The sky was blue, and the air fresh and cold….I wanted to get out there and snowboard as quickly as possible. Crystal was up for that too, so Alex and Junko took us to the rental shop, where Junko had already arranged for us to pick up our snowboard gear and snowboards. The gear fitted perfectly. After trudging away in our big snowboard boots and gear, we went to a ski wear shop and bought some goggles. I’ve experienced being snowblind before, and didn’t want it happening again. I’ve also experienced wearing conventional sunglasses on the slopes, and falling flat on my face and breaking them, so buying goggles was a sensible solution. I also bought thick gloves, remembering another time I went snowboarding with a group of drunken young Japanese lads, and they insisted on teaching me some snowboarding jump tricks, though my thin cotton gloves had holes in them. My hands were red raw and scratched mercilessly from the ice. Not pleasant.
Geared up, Crystal already looked the part. We were ready to hit the slopes. Not for us lessons, I was determined to try and teach Crystal and have her learn the hard way like me. Alex and Junko took us to the base of a beginner slope, and they headed up in the ski-lift, leaving Crystal and I to strap our left foot into the snowboard and lurch for what seemed like an age to the ski lift. We waited on the line as a ski-lift went past, then the green light went on and the ski-life attendant gestured. “Hai, dozo….” he said, and we awkardly slid our snowboards forward and waited for the ski-lift to hit us on the back of the knees and cause us to sit back as the lift trundled up the cable to the mid point of the mountain. Fir trees were left and right, and it had started snowing as we were carried up the mountain, snowboard dangling off our left feet. Wonderful views. The urge to jump off and snowboard down the off-piste snow was strong, as it always is, but I managed to resist and we got to the top. The tricky part at the top of the ski-lift is getting off and lurching away with your right foot whilst sliding the snowboard with your left. It all looks very inelegant compared with the skiiers. We made it without falling and being cracked on the back of the head by a ski-lift, which has happened, and we strapped our right foot to the board and proceeded to try and head down the first run – Family course. It was a beginner slope, but for a complete first-timer like Crystal, it still wasn’t easy, and you could pick up a lot of speed in places. After a while, Crystal gained confidence, especially after learning how to slow down, though it took a few painful falls. Meanwhile, I was desperately trying to get my groove of old back, shifting my body weight, bending my knees, trying to ‘snake’ down left and right. It took a while, as I had a problem snaking to the right for some reason. Perhaps I’m not as light or agile as I used to be. The first run took about 20 minutes, but we speeded up after that. Alex and Junko, more advanced skiiers, had headed off to more challenging slopes on another mountain, but we met them a couple of times through the day for a tea/coffee/American dog break. It felt fantastic out there on the slopes. A beautiful sunny day. The slopes were quiet, and on some runs nobody would pass us….perfect conditions, and there was good powder too. After a thoroughly enjoyable learning curve of a day for both of us, we met Alex and Junko again in the cafe. Alex wanted to do some night runs, as the mountain we were on switches on floodlights and you can ski and snowboard until 9pm. I joined him, while Junko and Crystal went on a shopping spree. Now I was with Alex, we headed to a different ski-lift, one that took us the top of the intermediate slopes. The runs here were challenging, the snow unploughed in areas, and a greater degree of risk-taking was needed. Under floodlights, snowboarding proved to be an even more exhilerating experience. Alex bombs along like he’s escaping from henchmen in the Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service….and his ipod has the ‘Ski Sunday’ theme song, along with a host of Bond tunes to keep his adrenaline pumping. I can’t get the same speed built up on the snowboard…perhaps I need to listen to ‘Ski Sunday’ too.
After such a hard days skiing, nothing is more rewarding than a soak in a Japanese Onsen. I’d forgotten how great they are. You shower before you get in the big communal hot spring bath. Alex and I mused over the day’s events, talked about our days in Japan….for these were happy and nostalgic times. From the hot bath, we plunged into the icepool, before sweating it out in the sauna for 5 minutes, a dip in the ice pool once more, then a final soak, before drying off. Leaving the onsen, I’d never felt so clean in my life. I felt like a new born baby. Such freshness is impossible in humid Singapore, where minutes after a cold shower you’re dripping with sweat once more. The feeling of pure cleanliness is something I’ll remember for a long time.
I headed back to the room with Crystal, we got changed, then Alex called to say he was coming over with some beer and wine. I set up the table in the room with Japanese snacks. Alex and Junko came over, and we had a few cans of Sapporo Draft – Hokkaido special – beer has probably never tasted so good. The other cans Alex brought we put out onto the balcony, buried in a pile of snow – colder than any fridge. We chatted about many things, inevitably bringing up our time in japan, of which Junko was obviously a huge part. For Crystal, this meant a long bout of listening, and I felt bad that she couldn’t really chip in as she hadn’t been there. Suitably warmed up, we headed to a Japanese BBQ restaurant. Here, we were greeted by a long-faced chap whom we would later call Elvis die to his taste in blue suits and slicked back 1950s hairstyle. He was a busy little fellow, with a permasmile that carried a strange sadness, though Alex would call it sinister. “Hai Irrashaimase….dozo…” He chimed, smiling all the while, teeth clenched together. Perhaps he was vegetarian. In this little log cabin restaurant we ordered a huge feast of meat and vegetables that we cooked ourselves in a big hot pot. It was nomehodai too, which meant we could drink as much as we wanted for 2 hours. Crystal doesn’t really drink, but myself, Alex and Junko got seriously stuck in, Alex and I inparticular got a bit carried away with the ‘free’ Kirin. The food was fantastic. Crystal and Junko took over the cooking duties, and my plate was never empty of succulent meat. I hadn’t had such a satisfying feast for a long time.
All too soon, the time was up, and we had to leave the restaurant. Alex kept insisiting on running across to 7-11 to buy a Japanese porn mag, but in the end gave up on the idea after meeting with one of Junko’s death stares. We went back to Alex and Junkos room where we sensibly drank some Aquarius, before Crystal and I staggered (well, I staggered anyway) back to our room. It had been, well, an amazing day and night.