Part 2 – Japan – Niseko – Hirafu (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Food Glorious Food – A couple of special mentions

There is an awesome  pizza shop located down some stairs on the corner of the main junction, called Niseko Pizza. It has tasty food, wine, a cool seating area and bar. After a long day boarding and eating Japanese most meals, it is nice to get in touch with Italian food coupled with a vibrant atmosphere.

Another group favourite was Wild Bill’s, which is about as un-Japanese looking as you can get. It is a large log style cabin with multiple bars and a pool table split across two levels. They serve delicious Japanese tapas (izakaya) and it can get quite ‘wild’ if you stay past 10pm. It is an easy way to start a fun night out if you are so inclined.
The final mention goes to “Fridge Bar” (aka Bar Gyu). It is an awesome boutique bar, nestled in the snow, a little way from the main drag and has a fridge door as the entrance. They serve hot food and drinks in a cosy and interesting ambiance with vinyls lining the walls. I had many spiked hot chocolates here listening to some  tunes.

Funky boutique bar with a cool atmosphere and drinks menu.

Funky boutique bar with a cool atmosphere and drinks menu.

Enjoyed many hot chocolates and cocktails here in the cosy atmosphere.

Enjoyed many hot chocolates and cocktails here in the cosy atmosphere.

Snowboard Lessons with Pro Ski

My partner could already snowboard having been on a trip previously and he swore that I wouldn’t need lessons and that he could ‘easily’ teach me. He didn’t get lessons when he learnt, but tends to be a freak of nature when it comes to picking up sports. He tried to convince me that I would easily learn just like he did. I was willing to let him at least attempt to teach me. I had borrowed my board and bindings from a friend, but loaned boots and a helmet from one of the ski shops in the village. In day one, my partner spent a couple of hours trying to teach me some basic moves and how to get on and off the lifts without much luck. Needless to say, I did not learn anything, and had already started counting my bruises. After lunch, I went and booked a lesson and improved significantly with better directions fro my instructor and a little more patience. I went with Pro Ski and just did a half day lesson, but there are a variety of other options and a kids club. There were five girls in my lesson of varying ability and we all slowly ‘leafed‘ our way down the family run. I then spent two days practicing what I had learnt in the lesson, but I couldn’t quite perfect my technique and kept crashing, so I booked a second lesson on day three to correct any bad habits. I am so glad I did! It helped correct a variety of snowboarding sins and after that lesson, I felt I snowboarded with less effort and found I didn’t fall over so much. After three snow trips (Japan twice and Canada) I have progressed to my own board and are attempting jumps and tricks with ease. So don’t give up 🙂

Onsen Etiquette – Yukoro

If you have ever wondered about why Japanese women are so liberal about getting changed in public bathrooms, onsen is the answer. Japanese onsens can be quite a daunting experience for westerners. An onsen is a natural spring of hot water that is believed to have healing properties due to the minerals it contains. Some are naturally occurring and others are built up around shines or sacred areas. They are steamy, unusual and definitely an experience worth having, even just for the awkward story. Onsens are usually gendered but some can be mixed. They are quiet and peaceful places that Japanese people go to meditate and relax after a long day.

The Yukoro onsen was my first experience and it was just a short walk from our accommodation. I have now been in a variety of onsens, from indoor to outdoor, on rooftops and private baths in fancy hotels. After boarding or skiing for 5 or so hours, onsen is the perfect way to unwind with a beer or soft drink to let your muscles recover. Leave your shoes wherever everyone has left theirs and then pay the person behind the desk (usually a couple hundred yen). Find the locker room and follow everyone’s lead, by taking off your clothes and putting them in a locker, making sure to remove jewellery and watches etc. Use your modesty towel to cover up if you are shy (or are lucky enough to get one) or just go without and strut your stuff proudly (maybe have a few drinks beforehand, but not too many as you can pass out from the heat). Most people avert their eyes and are respectful anyway. Next comes the washroom. For my first time, it was located down a flight of steamy stairs and did resemble a dungeon a little. But do not fear! It is expected that you will wash yourself thoroughly BEFORE entering the onsen bath. You are supposed to sit on the little plastic stools and use the showers and products provided to clean your hair and body. Standing is unusual, but no one will say anything if you don’t want to sit on the plastic tubs. Before entering, women are expected to put their hair up (not let it sit in the water). Entering the onsen gracefully is really hard work as it is really hot and I found I had to choose which part of my body I covered with my very small modesty towel. Sitting on the edge of the bath, stark naked, slowly forcing yourself into the hot water is quite a humorous situation to find yourself in, made even more awkward and hilarious when with friends. At the Yukoro onsen in Niseko, we were allowed to bring beers and drinks bought from the vending machine outside into the onsen (the rules depend on the onsen) and the common practice (once you have got used to the heat) is to sit in the bath and place your modesty towel on your head (it shouldn’t go in the water) with snow on top to keep you cool if you are too hot. A word of warning, sometimes there are whole Japanese families going into onsen together, it is a little weird at first hanging out with women of all ages naked in a bath, but the more you do it, the better it gets. Trust me. Embrace it. Once you are done (about 20-30mins for me before I get too hot or dizzy) you can rinse off in the washroom, dry off and put your clothes back on. You will sleep like a baby I promise. This became a daily routine and an awesome way to thaw out after all that time in the snow.

Tokyo and Disneyland coming soon.

-rocketandramble

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Part 1 Japan – Niseko – Hirafu (Dec-Jan 2014/2015)

Hirafu, Niseko was the destination of my first group snow trip. It is located on the Hokkaido island, which is north of Japan’s mainland. On the way to Niseko, we stayed a couple of nights in Tokyo (a couple is all you will need) before flying domestically (approximately 2 hours) to Sapporo on Hokkaido island. I do believe there is a bullet train as well, but I haven’t delved any further. Once you arrive in Sapporo, you catch a bus (approx 3-4 hours depending on the weather) to Niseko. It is a scenic route as the roads slowly get snowier, the bus window gets colder and the tree branches begin to fill with snow. At the 30 minute stopover, was the first time I got to really witness snow falling and snowflakes and play in the huge mounds of it that get pushed to the side of the road. I was like a child again, giddy with a new experience and uncontainable excitement. The snow in Japan is so light and fluffy, it really is like powder and it is magical. It is one of my best memories.

The view from the bus on the way up the mountain just keeps getting better.

The view from the bus on the way up the mountain just keeps getting better.

The slopes of Niseko access a variety of mountains with a a range of difficulty levels and off piste areas. Japan’s slopes do have tress but they are fairly small and easy to manoeuvre around and can actually be quite fun to go through with the fresh powder settling waiting for you to hurtle through it. I would recommend a helmet though, just in case you can’t stop in time. Maps of the slopes can be found online here and the mountain passes can be bought for one or multiple mountains depending on how far you want to explore each day. We organised an 8/10 day ski pass before we arrived (trust me you will need a couple of days to rest your legs when skiing for that long) to save on money and then just purchased our last few days as we went. Hanazono had a great park for those who are interested in that sort of thing. Over the two weeks we were in Niseko, we explored all three mountains and were still finding new runs and sections. I highly recommend getting up early for first tracks at least one of the days, and Niseko has some excellent night skiing as well. It is best if the snow has been falling consistently all day and you haven’t quite had enough. It is cold, but can be worth it as the crowds thin out.
The Niseko village is small, but quite touristy and well established. Most people speak English well, but learning a little Japanese goes a long way. In peak season, I would advise booking accommodation as soon as you have your plane ticket, as it does get very busy and fills up quickly.

It is cold, but if it has snowed all day, I would recommend doing it at least once. The lit up runs aren't long, but they are uncrowded and totally fun.

It is cold, but if it has snowed all day, I would recommend doing it at least once. The lit up runs aren’t long, but they are uncrowded and totally fun.

There are a range of places to eat that cater to all tastes and cultural appetites. It can be done cheaply if you stick to the Japanese restaurants as the western food tends to be more pricey. If you want to eat out in large groups (more than 4) I would encourage you to book ahead during the day so you do not get turned away, as most of the boutique restaurants won’t be able to fit large groups on a whim. We found if we ate a little later than usual, they could squeeze us in, but sometimes we were waved away as the venues aren’t very big. To eat on the mountain, you will pay a premium price so we found we could eat really cheap by making a rendezvous time at Seico Mart (the small convenience shop in the middle of the village, just down from the bottom ski lift. You can’t miss it) and we would get sushi, rice dishes, dumplings or noodles and have a bit of a picnic out the front instead. Trying to figure out the hot chocolates and coffees from the vending machines is still a bit of a novelty. It was also pretty fun trying the Japanese snack food and chips, choosing only by the pictures that don’t always relate to what is actually inside.

The village at night is just beautiful with all the snow pushed to the side to make way for the roads. It is so marshmellow-y.

The village at night is just beautiful with all the snow pushed to the side to make way for the roads. It is so marshmellow-y.

Accommodation

My partner and I stayed in a place called the Grandpapa Lodge Pension, which is a large Japanese house run by a local family. The house boasts many rooms (twin or double) with shared bathroom facilities and a communal kitchen. The accommodation is quite modest, but comfortable enough if you aren’t too fussy. There are a range of accommodation options that can suit any budget, just make sure you book well in advance. Our room had twin beds, a table, heater and we used the shared bathroom. It also included breakfast which was a always an interesting talking point to start the morning on as we tried to guess what was in our meals. The family who ran it were lovely and tried to meet any needs we had. It was small, but warm and we didn’t have many issues with the bathroom after the initial shock of no locks and multiple showers in one room (after you have been to an onsen it all makes perfect sense- a post on onsen etiquette is coming soon). Our modest accommodation came in at AU$60 per night with breakfast included and you can’t really beat that. My only complaint was the many stairs we had to walk up and down to get to our room which was on the second level. Usually it would be no problem, but after 3 days learning to snowboard I could hardly lift my legs, let alone walk up stairs.

Grandpapa Lodge had a variety of quirky and interesting decorations scattered throughout its walls.

Grandpapa Lodge had a variety of quirky and interesting decorations scattered throughout its walls.

Part 2 to follow with recommendations, onsen etiquette, snowboard lessons and… Disneyland!

-rocketandramble