Back in Japan…

DSCF2679image1

Well I’m back in Japan, and I have to say life is here pretty good. Mix equal parts of on-piste skiing, backcountry skiing, soaking in onsen, studying Japanese, and hanging out at Pontaro izakaya, and you have the recipe for my current day-to-day. The amazing experience I had here in Shin-Akakura last year brought me back for another season. It was such a great place to study Japanese and ski that I had to come back again, but this time only until March. It’s really a great situation for learning Japanese – I spend a couple hours studying in Hotel Moc and Sachiko helps me with any questions, and, in the evening, I’m exposed to, let’s say, various and interesting conversations at the izakaya (セクシーエアプロンだから)。

I have to admit that last year I felt pretty lost in learning Japanese; however, this time things are really starting to click. Last year I was adamantly against learning any kanji because I thought it was such a big hurdle and wanted to focus on conversation instead of reading/writing. However, I started studying kanji again this past December, and now I really like it. The strange thing with kanji (the Chinese characters) is that there are multiple readings (pronunciations) for each character. For example, you can see a word written and not really know how to pronounce it, but since the kanji have meaning you can understand the meaning of the word. The opposite is true for English, if you see a word for the first time, you can pronounce it but have no idea what it means. Anyways, the point is you can’t really read much with just katakana and hiragana, so the veil of illiteracy is slowing coming off. And that’s a great thing.

Small story: last year when travelling with James, we were discussing the personality type that tends to talk only about themselves and doesn’t ask questions about you – this was a pet peeve of James’ while I asserted that all you had to do was start talking about yourself without any inquiry. So James made the point that when you learn a language, the first thing you learn to say is how are you? In Japanese, you say genki? which means roughly are you lively? And indeed, this is the first thing you learn in Japanese. However, Japanese people almost never say this. You ask someone if they’re lively if you haven’t seen them in a long time, but it really isn’t a replacement for how are you? In fact, June-chan spent a good few minutes making fun of me for speaking like a Japanese textbook because I asked him everyday if he was genki.

Anyways, up at the top is an ice sculpture of the characters 雪酒場 (snow alcohol place) and somehow I got into the local paper.

またね。

Japan in Pictures: Jan to May

Best 3 months ever! Last day in Myoko Kogen, Japan :-(

IMG_4771

The life of a ski bum is kind of awesome, but combine ski-bum life with the best place in the world to travel (Japan!), and you have a recipe for the best time of your life. The past few months have not only been amazingly fun but also an extremely rewarding and unique travel experience. Apparently, I’ve been having so much fun, that I haven’t kept up with blogging, so here are the last 3 months in short-form.

Myoko Kogen (妙高高原) is a set of about 6 ski resorts around the base of a dormant volcano, Mt Myoko. To get here you take a 40 minute train ride from Nagano city. I’ve been staying in the Shin-Akakura village in Myoko Kogen.

I came to Myoko Kogen after reading about it on powderhounds.com and arrived with no real “plan” other than to ski and learn some Japanese. Upon arrival, I went to the tourism office, and they kindly called a hotel for me. A young man from Hotel Moc came to pick me up.

That was January 13th! In the three months since, I have transitioned from guest into part-time employee into extended family member.

After about 2 weeks of living in the hotel, the couple that own it, Ken and Sachiko, asked me if I would like a part-time job. At first I wasn’t sure; after all, I’m on vacation, right? But Sachiko insisted the work would not be difficult, so I agreed. I would watch the front desk on weekends while Sachiko was busy in the restaurant, and every morning, we would spend an hour speaking in English and then in Japanese. In exchange for the work, I could stay in a worker’s room free-of-charge. The room was very simple with a tatami floor with a futon for sleeping, a low table, and a kerosene heater. For me it was perfect! It was the most minimal setup, but I was grateful for a space to call my own. Also, she gave me a ski pass for the mountain — a sweet gig if there ever was one!

So that was my life for about 6 weeks: Japanese breakfast in the morning followed by Japanese/English language exchange, hit the slopes for a few hours, eat some ramen on the hill, ski some more, get cleaned up in the onsen, and then go to the local izakaya to have dinner and chat with the owners. A rough existence to say the least.

The izakaya, Pontaro Izakaya (ポン太郎居酒屋), is run by Pontaro and Yuka, and this is where I had dinner every night. After chatting with them nightly for a few weeks, I eventually asked them if they needed arbeito (part-time worker). Yuka was thrilled. She gave me an apron and headband and put me to work washing dishes. In exchange for my menial work, they provided me with beer, sake, and dinner. I have now entered ski-bum heaven — my only expense was a daily bowl of ramen for lunch which left me free to spend spend spend on new ski gear.

During those first 6 weeks, I really became a part of the community here.  I made friends on the ski hill with a cute young couple from Niigata city, and I went to Niigata to visited them. I chatted with whoever came to the izakaya, including Kao-chan, who kindly took me telemark skiing for the first time, pro-skiers with Moment (I bought Moment Exit World powder skis), Bill, who runs a backcountry touring company and kindly drove me to Nagano for my ski purchases, and lots of colourful locals and Japanese skiers from out of town. People I had never met before would come in to the izakaya and say they had heard of me — Yuka would tease me for being famous. でも、ゆうめいになりたくない (translation).

There have been so, so many great experiences here. I helped out with building the kamakura for the ski festival, and the community celebrated together with hot sake and food. At Yuka’s birthday bash at Pontaro’s, I helped out serving nigirizushi and had the pleasure of playing sushi chef for a night. I came to Sachiko and Ken’s shinto blessing and ground-breaking ceremony for their new house and bow-bow-clap-clap-bow’ed for good fortune in their new abode. I joined the Moc family and a dozen others from the village on their annual road-trip, this year to Kanazawa, sang 7 Nation Army at karaoke in front of them, and received my Japanese name, 氷雨二郎 (Hisame Jiroo). 氷雨 (hisame) is frozen rain, i.e., hail which is like Hale, and 二郎 (jiroo) which came from a drunken night with Hiroko’s colleagues in Tokyo. And, finally, I have been to no less than 9! cherry blossom viewings, hanami, 6 of which were with friends from Shin-Akakura. すごいね。

In the last 6 weeks, my mom came from Canada to visit. She met my Japanese family here, and we did a snow hike, saw snow monkeys, and visited Tokyo, Kyoto, Takayama, Osaka, and Hiroshima. Hiroshima I totally fell in love with and visited again when Ross came to Japan a few weeks ago. I got to see my childhood friends, Reid and Erik, who live in Osaka, that I hadn’t seen in 15 years. Touring around with Rossco was great. I got to enjoy the comfort and luxury of staying (on the floor) of the famous Park Hyatt Tokyo hotel and have my biggest day of backcountry skiing ever in Hakuba.

It’s definitely bittersweet leaving Myoko Kogen, but I will come back next year. I just started backcountry skiing this year so I have yet to reach the summit of Mount Myoko.

Tonight, we are going to make the party at Pontaro Izakaya, and tomorrow, I’ll go to Tokyo and spend a few days checking out the Tokyo Islands with Hiroko. Then it’s off to Korea for a few months.

Much love to Sachiko, Ken, Yuka and Pontaro. Be back soon!

 

Takada Castle Hanami party

Hanami is the Japanese word for a party under the cherry blossoms. Someone once told me that hanami is celebrating the cycle of life and the precarity of it since the blossoms, sakura, only last a couple weeks before falling to the ground. A foreigner told me this. Japanese, and my own experience from going to 4 hanami parties, tell me it’s just fun to drink under the beautiful blossoms.

My good friend Ross came to Japan a couple weeks ago to visit a few cities and, mainly, to ski. I went to go meet him in Tokyo and while we were checking out the shrine at Meijijingu we happened upon a huge hanami at Yoyogi park. The whole park was in blossom and there were families everywhere sitting on blue tarps, drinking wine and sake, taking photos and playing music from portable stereos.

We did the same thing again the following week near Ueno in Tokyo with my friend Hiroko. It was great fun. We met a bunch of new people and ended up at a small house party afterwards. The next week in Hiroshima we went to Koba rock bar and the owner, Bom, invited us to his hanami party the next day. This was the hardest partying hanami of the three we had been to. It took place right along one of the beautiful canals only a few hundred metres from where the atomic bomb was dropped.

My 4th hanami of the season was at Takada castle. Japanese castles usually involve a large square moat with a high rock wall and the castle is really more of a multi-story wooden house than a stone European-style castle. The huge grounds of the castle had 4000 cherry trees in a beautiful white blossom and many of them were lit up with pink or purple lights. It was a really stunning sight and ripe for photo taking. Apparently the rest of Niigata prefecture thinks so too as it was overwhelmingly busy. The main difference between this and the other hanami I had seen was 200 or so vendors of food and alcohol and cake-on-a-stick, which had a line of about 50 people. Sadly I never got my cake-on-a-stick and had to settle for meat-on-a-stick.

Gourmet Ski Hike

Today was a new type of skiing. I’ve been alpine, alpine touring, and telemark skiing, but these skis have a fish-scale pattern underfoot that provides some grip for a not-too-steep climb but is smooth for downhill. You are strapped in with a free-heel like telemark skiing – keep in mind I suck at telemarking skiing. It’s a good setup for rolling hills.

I went with Pont-chan, Aka-chan, and another couple who are some serious gourmets when it comes to hiking. I just brought a beer, but they brought 4 bottles of wine, collapsible wine glasses, and a light-weight stove to cook sausages and deer steak. The ratio of eating to hiking was just right: 1 hour eating to 4 hours hiking.

Much love to Yuka-chan for the packed obento of onigiri and eggs.

Now the party continues at Takada castle for my fourth hanami (cherry blossom party) of the year – I went to two in Tokyo and one in Hiroshima. Always super fun!

Visiting Snow Monkeys with my Mom

My mom came to visit me in Japan, and we’re going to spend the next two weeks visiting several cities. I picked her up at Narita on Wednesday, and we spent the evening in a loud izakaya filled with salarymen smoking incessantly. It was the perfect introduction – there were even goldfish swimming under the stone floor.

Today was a bit more on the nature side of things. We took the train up to Myoko Kogen (my home base) yesterday, and, today, Sachiko, my landlady, took us to a sake brewery, a famous mansion with many traditional kimono and Japanese dolls, and a beautiful buddhist temple with Hokusai’s art. But before all that, we went to visit the snow monkeys.

Since it’s bloody cold out, the snow monkeys of Shiga Kogen hang out in the 45 degree celsius onsen (hot spring) all day. As you approach the onsen, the air ripens with the smell of sulphur, and you find a dozen or so monkeys of different sizes soaking in the thermal pool. Pink faced, they are mostly holding onto the edge of the onsen like drunken bathers who have spent too much time in the hot tub. Caught between the choice of steaming hot water or freezing snow, they stretch out while their mates pick bugs out of their hair and groom them.

As for me, after spending all day outside in the cold and windy weather of Nagano, my core temperature needs a boost. This will be a short post as I need to reheat in the onsen downstairs. Hopefully the only pink-faced monkey down there will be me – I don’t need anyone to pick the bugs out of my hair.

Becoming a part of a community in Japan

Today is my 2 month anniversary of being in Myoko Kogen. I can’t overstate what an amazing travel experience this has been. In the last two months, I have improved my Japanese from non-existent to poor conversational (enough to chat people up on the ski lift), tremendously improved my skiing (skied about 40 days), and have met so many people here that I really feel like a part of the community. Everyone I have met here has been exceptionally kind and has really gone out of their way for me.

Myoko Kogen is a set of several ski resorts about a 40-minute train ride north of Nagano; Nagano being a 2-hour bullet train ride north from Tokyo. Just to give a little relative geography, Tokyo is on the southern coast of Japan, and, if you took the train 40 minutes north from Myoko, you would be on the northern coast, splashing your feet in the Sea of Japan. Myoko Kogen’s proximity to the Sea of Japan and the cold Siberian winds blowing from the North are the reason that it’s normal for Myoko to receive a meter of fresh snow any given day. Sounds like a great place to learn how to powder ski don’t you think?

I found out about Myoko from powerhounds.com (as most people have) and decided to come here after reading that it had not yet been invaded by Aussies. While it’s no Niseko (Whistler in Japan), what I read was a little out of date. The past few years have seen a tremendous increase in the number of foreigners, the vast majority being Aussies. And, to put my Aussie-bashing to rest, I would like to officially state that Aussies are a friendly bunch, and most of the Aussies I meet are great. Some of them even apologize for invading en masse.

Based on the epic pow, the lack of foreigners, and the short travel time to/from Tokyo, it seemed like the ideal place to improve my skiing and get into the backcountry while learning Japanese and having a cultural experience. However, my experience here has gone way beyond that and whatever expectations I had were totally exceeded. I honestly feel at home here and like a part of the community – and it has only been two months! I lived in Vancouver for 10 years and never felt like a part of any community. I think that says a lot. Sometimes I do miss the anonymity of city-living. Word travels fast here: go skiing with a member of the opposite sex and people start talking! That being said, it’s great to have people come to the izakaya and say “Hey, you must be Jeremy-san”.

The event that really solidified my sense of community here was the kamakura ski festival last month. It was a great night of hot sake, hot soup, and cold beer, and the whole community came – everyone was there. In the 3 days preceding the festival, I was asked to help out in the preparations. The main work to be done was building the kamakura (think igloo but built by blowing snow on top of a dome instead of stacking ice blocks). The first kamakura was made of snow that had naturally fallen onto this wooden geodesic dome about 6 metres across. The first day we went into the dome and sculpted, out of snow, a bench around the edge and an altar to place some kind of idol. We also blew a bunch of snow on top of it and sculpted the top to look like Mount Myoko (the local dormant volcano). The smaller kamakura was built using an inflatable form and 3 snow blowers to cover it with snow. Then we dug out the inside. It was really beautiful inside; the roof was so thin initially that you could see sunlight coming through. Outside, we carved a long wall out of snow and then cut little cubby holes for people to place candles.

In the 3 days preceding the festival, we built the kamakura. About ten of us all together, we worked for 3 hours in the morning, stopped for lunch (which was provided free of charged), drank copious amounts of Asahi, and then went back to work for another couple hours in the afternoon. Yes, drinking lots of beer and then going back to operating heavy machinery – I don’t know if snow blowers count as heavy machinery, but the little bulldozer definitely did. However, up until the day of the festival, I still really had no idea what the point of the festival was or what we would be doing. I could assume sake would be involved as almost everything involves sake in Japan. But, it wasn’t until we set up a tent and started building a kitchen (3 burners and a charcoal pit) that I realized there would be food. That’s when I got really excited. Festival food is always good, second only to someone’s mom’s cooking.

Free delicious food, free hot sake, and tiny, little cans of beer – that in itself is enough for a great party. But, what made it special, and what made me feel like a part of a community, was that we had all worked on it together; it was not an individual effort but a team effort. Most of the people involved ran the local hotels in Shin-Akakura or worked for the ski resort, but also the young foreigners that work at the English-speaking ski school, some of whom have been here multiple seasons, helped out by digging the candle cubby holes into the snow along the main road and clearing out the kamakura. What also made it special was that almost everyone I had met over the past month was there: the family that runs the hotel I live at, some of the ski patrollers I had met at the izakaya, the fun, young instructors from the ski school, and even the group of Aussies that I had gotten to know since they were staying at my hotel. Everyone was there: going back for seconds of hot soup; going back for fourths and fifths of hot sake; writing wishes on paper cups, putting a candle inside, and placing it in the holes of the snow wall.

Since we had erected a large, red torii gate in front of the kamakura snow domes and placed a smaller gate and an idol inside the kamakura, I asked a few people what the reasons were for the festival. They told me it was to pray for a good ski season. You have to love that about the Japanese. While Catholics are worried about how many Hail Marys they should say, how gays fit in with religion, or if you can have a female priest, the Japanese toss in a coin and pray for good luck in business, in school, or in love. They keep it simple. Just like praying for a good ski season. But with the festival being held in mid-February, more than part way through the ski season, I don’t buy it. I think the real reason behind the festival is just getting everyone together, imbibing hot sake, and keeping that sense of community strong.