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 While it’s no Niseko (Whistler in Japan), what I read was a little out of date.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.