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!