Thursday, March 6, 2008

Niseko, Part 2

Now because Trish and numerous others been whining at me I have decided to furnish loyal brog readers with further readings in reference to my sojourn to the wintry wastes of Hokkaido. We left Sapporo in the gaijinmobile, and ploughed on through the slush of the Sapporovian suburbs into the mountains on the way to Niseko. As light snow began to fall and we headed further into the mountains, the trees that covered the volcanic scenery became a pristine white. Beautiful, but not really that different from Akita.

However, the road to Niseko had a definite moment where the curtains are pulled back and Hokkaido says ‘daa daa!’ After driving through a long tunnel for quite some time, the exit came into view, and we were immersed in a total and absolute white landscape. Given that the dominant feature of stunning landscapes is often colour, it is difficult to lend apt words to describe exactly why this whiteness was such a ‘wow’ moment. Imagine driving a car through Japan, entering a tunnel and emerging again in Narnia. Awesome.

Anyway after a bit of help from JPS (the Jeff Positioning System) and none from the GPS on my phone (which thought we were driving through the middle of a rice field) we successfully arrived in Niseko, which amazingly has a higher percentage of Australia born inhabitants than Sydney! Obviously that fact is entirely made up, but there could accurately described to be a metric fuckton of Aussies in this remarkably western town. Niseko is even spelt ニセコ in Japanese on road signs, using the Katakana alphabet principally reserved for foreign words.

The experience of being genuinely immersed in western culture in the middle of rural Japan was rather bizarre. In some ways this was fabulously liberating. I could get advice on buying a new snowboard in English, I could chat to strangers in bars in conversations not limited to ‘I am English Teacher. I like Japan. I do not like Natto’, and I could have beans on toast for breakfast. The latter was probably the greatest culinary sensation I’ve had since arriving in Japan. Another bonus of this Australian colony in Hokkaido was the preferential treatment we received from local Japanese people, purely through our ability to communicate in Japanese beyond please and thank you. Naturally I still went around butchering the language as I am wont, but the efforts were definitely more appreciated than they are in Akita.

No more so was this the case than on my third night, where, after struggling for a few days on sub standard equipment, I got on a chair lift with Yuka, a Japanese girl from Sapporo. On the way up we struck up conversation in Japanese, and after 5 minutes of exhausting every single phrase I knew in Japanese she started talking perfect English to me in a slight Australian accent. She had the ‘alroit moit’ down to a tee!

The following is one of the many reasons I love Japanese people. After seeing me struggle to get off the lift she asked if it was my first time, and told me that she was a snowboard instructor if I needed a lesson. She then spent 40 (FORTY!!) minutes helping me become what I can best describe as ‘slightly less shit’. Awesome.

So after this little victory snatched from the jaws of sporting incompetence it was time for New Years Eve! Usually the worst night out of most years, and while this was fun, it was nothing to write home about. Rob woke up lying naked in a pool of his own vomit in the toilets though, which as ways to welcome in 2008 is definitely up there.

Once I had become a bit more familiar with my board I came to realise that powdery days on the slopes at Niseko are the winter sports equivalent of rolling down Mount Everest in one of those big inflatable hamster ball thingies. Most fun ever. The feeling of snowboarding on powder snow is like surfing on a cloud, and when you’re doing this through thick trees, ducking branches and falling waist deep in the big fluffy stuff, it is one of the greatest sensations on earth. Although I really do want to roll down Everest in that hamster ball.

But Australia, like possessions, is fleeting, and since Japan is where my house is I decided to go back there. I snapped up £10 worth of tins of baked beans and the philmobile ventured forward into a much sunnier Hokkaido. The view of Yotei San, the friendly niseko volcano was fairly fantastic, but I’m typing this now with a view of my local friendly volcano out the window, and mine is totally better.

Next year I would definitely like to try to get to another big Japanese ski resort. The western nature of Niseko had its plus and minus points as regards the general experience, and for tourists looking for a Japanese experience there are resorts out there (Furano for example) which I am assured (by a friendly Belgian café owner) retain a much more Japanese ambience. However, when you’re waist deep in powder, feeling like you’re floating on clouds through trees, the fact that the onsen is full of drunken Australians doesn’t seem so bad.