Niseko Ski Diary
Holiday diary and pictures from our 2006 ski trip to Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan.
- Travelling from: Sydney, Australia.
- Travelling to: Niesko, Hokkaido, Japan.
- When we went: March 2006, for 8 days.
- Number of people: 2 - myself (age 31) and my Dad (aged somewhat older!).
- Level of experience: Me - intermediate (could parallel turn, but badly; Had only skied in Australia before this, at Perisher + a tiny amount at Thredbo); My dad - absolute beginner with exactly 2 days prior skiing experience (and only barely able to snow plough).
- Had never been on a ski holiday outside of Australia before.
Who we booked it through
We originally booked for Furano, through Flight Centre. However we had questions about the room (e.g. did it have a kettle - my Dad is a big tea drinker), and about how to get ski lessons (in English, of course). It soon became apparent that Flight Centre knew nothing, and were simply unable to answer even these basic questions, so we dropped them.
If you don't speak Japanese, and haven't been before, then you really need to organise it through someone you can talk to, and ask questions of. And you will have questions - even something as simple as "where do I go for my ski lessons?".
At the same time I read through some of the Australian skiing discussion forums, and the bits of the Lonely Planet guide to Japan. Furano got generally good comments, but Niseko generally got excellent comments, so we focussed more on Niseko instead of Furano.
Through google we found Niseko Ski Tours. My Dad phoned them, and it was immediately clear they knew what they were talking about. Shortly thereafter we booked with them. There are other tour operators that specialize in Japanese skiing (e.g. Snowave, and Ski Japan, and TravelPlan), but all I can tell you is that we were extremely happy with Niseko Ski Tours.
Cost for direct return flights (in business class seats), 8 nights accommodation + breakfast, ski lessons, all transfers, and 7-day all-mountain lift passes, was around AUS $3300 per person.
I meant to get travel insurance (AUS $90 extra) before leaving, but I never got around to it, and was a bit worried about this - but thankfully there was no call for it.
What to pack
- Standard ski gear (pants, jacket, beanie, goggles)
- Skis (carve skis are fine, and what we used, but the people that live in Hokkaido tend to have powder skis which are wider and a bit shorter), boots, stocks.
- Standard clothes (Jeans, tracksuit pants, long-sleeved tops, 2 or 3 short-sleeved tops, 1 or 2 jumpers). (Didn't think we would wear the short sleeved tops, but we did - both in the hotel, which was quite warm, and my Dad wore his on the lower beginner slopes on the hotter days).
- Standard toiletries + 2 tubes of Voltarin ointment (to apply to aching limbs).
- Thin socks for skiing in (I brought socks that were too thick, and it hurt my shins)
- Good gloves (I really wanted better gloves on several occasions). Your gloves should be much longer than standard gloves, if possible, that should go about 10 centimetres beyond the wrist. (When you fall in powder it goes everywhere, so you want to have a really good seal between your gloves and your jacket). Also it's cold (-15C at the top of the mountain), and windy, and so far more demanding conditions than Australia. I started to get frostbite on 3 occasions whilst wearing gloves that had been fine in Australia. So if you are intermediate or advanced, try to get good gloves before you go. (We took some extra pairs of gloves, and rotated them so that they were dry).
- A full balaclava and/or neck warmer. A must, in my opinion. You lose a lot of heat through your neck. Never needed one in Australia, but was really glad to have one here.
- Full body thermal underwear / long johns. (It gets cold out there. My Dad didn't wear his once on the lower slopes, because he wasn't sure he needed it, but by the end of the day he was sure).
Note: Baggage weight is a serious problem! We each got a baggage allowance of 20 kilos, plus 5 kilos extra for ski gear. When you add the weight of all you ski gear, the bags themselves, ski clothes, non-ski clothes, then it will be very tight to fit into this allowance, so weight everything first. JAL has a reputation for very strictly enforcing weight limits and charging extra if you go above these. I did go above them by about 3 kilos, but luckily both our flights were only half full, so they didn't seem to care too much about weight, and never said anything to us about this.
Also you will want to take lots of Yen, in cash. Cash is king in Japan, and we never used a credit card or an ATM card even once, and you should assume that these facilities will not be available, and carry adequate cash with you, just like the Japanese do. (I took AUS $500, Dad took AUS $1,500). I carried my cash with me the whole time, but safety deposit was available at the hotel reception.
What not to pack
- Despite my Dad's fussing, we didn't need any washing powder - they give you as much as you like in the hotel for free!
- Towel (thought we might need this for the onsen, but they gave us towels)
- Swimmers (never went to any pools, and you wear your birthday suit in the onsen)
- Sunscreen (Was never enough sun to need sunscreen, but it's pretty light, so probably didn't hurt to take it)
- Your mobile phone (it won't work in Japan; Japan and Korea use a different system which is incompatible with the GSM phones used in Europe / Australia / USA). A mobile can be useful in Australia (e.g. for meeting at the airport, letting people know you have arrived back, etc) - but it won't work in Japan.
- Sunglasses (I used goggles the whole time because of the wind, snow, and cold - but again, it's pretty light, so probably didn't hurt to take sunnies)
The flight out was very good - it ran to schedule (departing at Kingsford Smith at 11 AM), and we were right up the front of the JAL 747-400 charter plane. It was a direct flight to Sapporo - a direct flight is highly recommended, rather than transferring at Tokyo, as Tokyo has 2 airports, 1.5 hours apart, and you will need to travel from one to the other; If you fly Australian airlines you need to transfer at Cairns, which still adds around 4 hours to your journey. Go direct if you can.
Onboard the plane was Steve Kelso from Niseko Ski Tours, whom we had booked through, who was going on business travel to Furano and other locations to see about adding them as a destination. We found that Niseko ski tours had around 18 customers on the December 2005 charter flight, none on the January flight (could not get accommodation, because the dates conflicted with a Japanese local holiday), and 6 people on the March 2006 flight that we took.
The flight took 9 hours 50 minutes, and we arrived at Sapporo's New Chitose Airport at around 7 PM (note that Japan is 2 hours behind Australian Eastern Time). When we landed at Sapporo there was snow at the airport on the ground, but it wasn't snowing. There was a camera in the nose of the plane, and you could see the landing and approach and runway projected onto the overhead screen - there was a guy who guided the plane into its berth/spot with two red wands, and after we got into the right spot he bowed to the plane (very Japanese!). We got our luggage quickly (thankfully the baggage the doors weren't frozen shut, as we worried they may be and has happened before).
Whilst waiting for our bus at New Chitose Airport, we talked to an Australian who worked for the JAL airline, who was taking some reporters on a whirlwind tour, and he indicated that next year (2006-2007) that JAL will probably continue direct flights from Sydney to Sapporo, but with a smaller plane (e.g. 777 instead of the 747-400 that we were on, and which was only around 40% full). Apparently the December plane was around 75% full, the January one maybe 65% full, and this one was 40-50% full). Also there are supposed to be around 12000 Australians visiting Niseko this 2005-2006 season, and there were around 8000 in the season before. Apparently this 50% growth per annum in Australian visitor numbers has been happening for the past 5 years.
Then on the bus to Niseko, there was a Japanese manager of Rusutsu (a ski resort that is a bit closer to Sapporo - our bus stopped there before continuing onto Niseko). He talked to us about a lot of things, including a study done for them by the University of Canberra about why Aussies come here. Apparently there are 4 main factors that explain this:
- No jet lag
- Cost of lift tickets (nearly half the cost of Australian lift tickets)
- Consistency of the weather here
He confirmed that the number of Australian visitors is increasing, but added that the number of Japanese visitors is in a steady decline. The reason for the slow decline in Japanese skiers is that apparently the younger generation would rather stay indoors with Internet, TV, and video games.
The bus ride was around one and half hours to Niseko, and it was freezing cold when we moved our bags into the hotel, and it was snowing lightly. We had a welcoming thing when we arrived, but we were so exhausted that we didn't take it all in. Got to bed around midnight local time, or two AM Sydney time.
We stayed at the Niseko Scot Hotel (and more info here). The rooms are small, but the location is fantastic. The hotel is advertised sometimes has having 4 restaurants, but in reality it has 3 - a sushi restaurant, a restaurant just outside the front reception, and Gulliver's and Scot Dining (which have the same staff and the same menu and the same prices, so by any reasonable definition they're one restaurant, not two).
Dad woke me at 6 AM with coughing and banging and boiling the kettle, and then said in his best surprised voice: "Oh, you're awake!" Then we had breakfast, and it was half western / half Japanese (some noodles and stuff). Then off to our lessons, Dad in the newbies and me in the intermediate section, my instructor called Junto (not sure if I'm spelling that correctly). Dad had dressed for really cold weather, and I dressed for semi-cold (did not wear my fleece). The sky cleared up to a nice blue sky (very rare here apparently), and so it got much warmer. Found out that Dad later went back to the hotel and took off most of his stuff because he was dripping in sweat! I was okay though.
The view was/is fantastic from up on the mountain; Opposite our mountain is another mountain in a national park, called Mt Yotei, that looks just like a smaller version of mount Fuji - really beautiful.
Had lunch at the bottom of the mountain - AUS $11 for a big bowl of fried pork cutlet and rice and yummy gravy - good value, very filling, couldn't finish it all! They do an amazing variety sorts of drinks here, by the way. Hot and cold cans of every variety (coffee, tea, soft drinks, juices, etc). Lots of vending machines too. Then after an hour back onto the slopes (no rest for the wicked!)
Dad skied for around 1 hour more before being exhausted and throwing in the towel. I skied for another 30 minutes (finished around 3:45). Our lift tickets go from 8:30 AM until 8:30 PM each night, but so exhausted I don't think we'll manage that for a bit!
One thing that you notice on the mountain is that are semi-continuous automated announcements in Japanese over the loudspeaker system. There are also some announcements in English, and although some English announcements had a sense of humour, they rarely told you anything useful. However, you got used to it, and learned to ignore it pretty quickly.
Then we had an Onsen / Japanese bath. There is one in the hotel but apparently it's not a "proper" one (I think that means it's not using geothermal power to heat the water). One is being installed for next season (2006-2007) apparently. It was interesting to try all the washing rituals, and the hot bath after skiing felt so amazingly good. Very civilized - I approve! All Australian ski accommodation needs one of these.
Was feeling very knackered by the end our first day of skiing!
More about the room we are in: It is decorated in a "Snoopy" theme; Snoopy curtains, Snoopy doonas, Snoopy tissue box, and a Snoopy rubbish bin. Not sure whether to find it cute or creepy ... The thing with Snoopy is not a kids thing, I think it's just a theme; There is a 6 foot cardboard cutout of Snoopy in reception. I think the Japanese maybe just like Snoopy. They seem to like cartoons a bit in general in fact, and on the plane when they were saying do or don't do something, they would show it with a cartoon.
The room itself is quite small, and has almost no storage space (no drawers, only 4 or 5 hangers in the whole room, etc). However the view from our room is fantastic - we are in the corner of the building, and we look straight up the main Grand Hirafu ski slope in one window, and right down on the main ski lesson meeting place with the other window. We're in the second building down the slope, and from the front of our hotel you can ski to 3 or 4 lifts (one lift is a beginner one, and so maybe should not be counted). It's technically not quite ski-in ski-out as you have to carry your skis about 15 metres through the car park, but its position is so fantastic that it really doesn't matter.
We went for a wander in the Niseko village today, and there are two real estate shops, mostly directed at Australians. By the way, real estate prices are AUS $3 million for a house, and a 2 bedroom unit is >= AUS $400,000 (eek!). Also on our wander we found there is a whole shop here filled with "Hello Kitty" merchandise.
The weather today was really bad, after a great day yesterday. Only 4 or 6 of the lower lifts were open today, and it was constantly snowing. They said it was the worst wind of the whole season, and that this was the first time in the whole season that this many lifts had been closed. What a contrast to the beautiful conditions yesterday.
We had lunch in a Japanese restaurant, and an elderly lady made us change out of shoes and into slippers. After the meal the waitress refused Dad's tip (probably because it was the equivalent of $2.50 !)
At dinner tonight, I had Ramen noodles and pork as mains, with snow crab sushi and salmon roe sushi as entree. The sushi was particularly good (the seafood was really fresh and tasty). There is lots of seafood in the food here, and lots of noodles or rice (you can even have rice at breakfast if you want); there isn't much fruit in the food, and not really any desserts as such though. Then after 4 beers with dinner, Dad burned himself by spilling piping hot Japanese tea onto his crotch. The poor Japanese waitress rushed over to help him as he yelped in pain, but I think that he had had so much beer that we won't really know until tomorrow if he hurt himself. :-(
I continue to approve of Onsens... the hot water feels so good after a day's skiing, although I do feel a bit dizzy when I get out after 15 minutes in the hot water...
The computer where I am writing this looks right down onto one of the lifts, and it's still snowing, and the forecast is that it will probably do so tomorrow as well, but the day after it is forecast to clear up.
Tried calling a mobile at home with a 1000 Yen calling card that you can buy here, but the quality was terrible. Not sure if this was because of the calling card, or because of the mobile. Also tried to check my voice mail, but for some reason I could not get it to work using the calling card (it would not accept the mailbox number, so maybe the Japanese phones make different tones when you press the buttons).
Dad is OK from the hot tea - no permanent damage.
In the morning it was snowing lightly, with almost no wind, and occasional breaks in the cloud. Woke up to a big overnight dump of "wet powder"; Wet powder melts to water when it hits your clothing, and it is also kind of sticky, so it sticks to the skis, and makes it harder to turn. Apparently the best is "dry powder", which is supposed to be like talcum powder, and when you hold it in your glove you can see the individual snowflakes, and is supposed to be much better to ski in. Hope I get to see some of that. However, dry powder is mostly supposed to fall from late December through to the start of February, with wet powder at the remaining ski season; However the trade-off is that during the dry powder periods you can go for weeks without seeing the sun, as it can snow continuously - me, I kind of like to see the sun, and even with the wet powder it was fun! When you get into the non-groomed areas you can have snow up to your thighs, and see it's sort of like flying through a cloud, completely unable to see your skis. Of course the illusion ends when you try to turn and get it wrong, and end up completely buried in snow!
The cloud that had brought the wet powder cleared up as the day wore on, and now it is pretty clear again and blue skies. I can see Mount Yotei opposite (which is basically the acid test of the weather conditions here - if you can see the base then it's good conditions, and if you can see the top then it's great conditions). There is a webcam here. Trees here are Silver birches and on the lower slopes there are some pines. No eucalyptus of course, unlike Australia. Not much wildlife here, other than ravens / crows. There are supposed to be some foxes, but I haven't seen any.
Also there are lots of Japanese school kids on the slopes. They have big numbers on their backs, and all wear the same clothing; apparently it is a traditional Japanese school perk to get a trip to the snow in the junior school, and once again in high school. Lucky sods!
Rang one of the lucky bells at the top of the mountain today, so it should bring me luck!
Lunch was good; had a "rockomo" meal, which was a large fried mince patty, plus creamy soft scrambled eggs, and a salad, all on a bed of white rice. It was really good and filling!
I had my second lesson this morning. Unfortunately my right shin became really painful when I was doing my turns skiing down the mountain (particularly turning left). I was wearing thick socks, so it could either be that my socks were too thick, or that my boots are a bad fit (although they were okay on the first two days with socks that were a bit thinner). So after 2 hours of the 3-hour morning lesson it was hurting too much to continue, so I called it quits for the day and skied down to the hotel. I then had a long bath at the onsen, and then put some muscle soothing cream/ointment on the shin area that Dad had brought with him (ointment was called "Voltarin"). I will wear much thinner socks tomorrow and see how I go. My feet have never been cold here in my ski boots, so the socks being thinner shouldn't be a problem.
One Japanese ski saying my ski instructor told us during the lesson was: "No friends on powder days! Especially no older friends on powder days!". By which she explained that she meant that on mornings when fresh powder has fallen overnight, you want to get up the mountain early (before the powder gets tracked out), and waiting for friends will only slow you down, so don't do it. Even worse is older friends, because in Japan there is a social expectation of waiting for older people; If you're older than them it's OK to go ahead, but this would be considered rude if you are younger than them - hence "no older friends on powder days!"
Also during the lesson on the flat bits I was stopping gliding much sooner than the other people in the class. Our instructor got me to take off my skis, and saw that the wet powder snow was sticking to the skis. She scraped the snow off with a special flat plastic tool she had, but said that I should get the skis waxed to prevent the powder sticking. The skis are being waxed now (they do it overnight here), so I will collect them tomorrow morning.
My shins were hurting quite a lot today. Hopefully it's transient, and not a permanent problem with the boots.
Woke up to fantastic conditions today - mostly blue skies, and few clouds and perfect skiing conditions. It didn't snow overnight, so the lower slopes were getting icy. I decide to make it my aim to try and do most of the remaining green runs on the mountain that I hadn't done yet.
Chatted to an Australian couple at breakfast that came into Niseko at the same time as us with Niesko Ski Tours, called Brad and Carrie. Dad refers to Brad as a "ski god". They both quite enjoy holidaying in ski resorts, and from the conversation it was clear that they had visited a few ski resorts (although Brad more than Carrie as he started doing this before they met). It sounded like around 20, and so I said this; Brad reckoned it could not be that many, more like 10 to 15. So he listed them, and by the time he was done it was 20. I pointed out that he had to add one for Niseko, thus making it 21! Carrie is more an intermediate skier though, which was good because they asked me if I wanted to come with them that morning, and I didn't want to hold them up, so I said yes.
We set off from the main village where we are staying (base of Grand Hirafu) at 9:15. We took two lifts up the mountain, high enough for the conditions to change completely as we entered the low lying cloud, and it got much cooler and visibility dropped to around 15 metres. We traversed into the Higashiyama resort area, and then took another lift and kept traversing into An'nupuri resort area. Then we took Green and red runs down the mountain (a red run here is the equivalent of a blue run in Australia; Green is still called green, and black is still called black though).
An'nupuri is kind of like Blue Cow (especially Pleasant Valley) - it has wide, gentle runs; but the runs are longer than Blue Cow, and there are less people over a larger area. It was good, so we took the main An'nupuri Gondola up, and did it over again. Then we stopped for a coffee break at a small wooden building called the "Paradise Hut". Carrie said it reminded her of having coffee after the Merritz run at Thredbo (of which she approves). The perspective on Mount Yotei is also very different from An'nupuri, because you have wrapped around the mountain more. Overall, I really liked An'nupuri, and would rate it well (as I would also for Hirafu).
Then up a series of three individual lifts took us right up into the cloud cover again, and we glided down to the "An'nupuri Hut" for lunch. I had the miso and pork and potato soup with rice cakes. It was okay, but Brad's choice for pork cutlet and gravy and rice was the clear winner; I suspected it would be, but I had that meal before, and wanted to sample as many new Japanese foods as possible.
At this point we had crossed back into Higashiyama, which took us one resort closer back to base. We worked down the one main green run of Higashiyama, which is basically a winding road. I found the upper two thirds of Higashiyama to be steeper than I had expected for a green run. The lower third was one long full-speed-no-turns-or-you-will-walk run that takes you to the doors of the Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel, a modern semi-high-rise hotel located all by itself, away from the main village (so if you stay there you'd be eating in the hotel every night most likely).
By this time Carrie and I were truly knackered (I could feel my thighs starting to cramp up and tremble). So we decide to take the free mountain bus back to home base, but Brad wanted to ski on. So he took the Prince Gondola, which located just outside the Prince Hotel. We took the Gondola up too because we had time until the bus, and I wanted to take the Gondola to check out the ride. So at the top we took some photos, then took the Gondola all the way back down again. Started to talk about ski lift accidents, and realised that Carrie suffers vertigo and fear of flying, so I was asked to please talk about something else!
Then we wandered around the shops in the lobby of the Prince Hotel for about 15 minutes, before catching the bus. The bus is just a normal bus. They really need a bus with ski racks on the side, because if you are medium-tall western male in a bus carrying skis of the appropriate length for you, then it is almost impossible to transport these on a normal bus. Got back around 3:45 PM, and I was really tired so I flopped out, with the plan of rendezvousing in time to try and catch the sunset over the mountains later in the day.
Phone rang around 5 PM, and got all the ski gear back on and went back up to the top to mountain. It was much cooler, and the wind had picked up. The clouds unfortunately came in a bit, and we didn't get the pastel sunset that Brad has seen the day before. Skied until around 6:30, then back to the hotel to rendezvous with Dad for dinner.
We had sushi at the restaurant in the hotel. It was really good and a real experience (much better quality than Sydney, and half of the things were things that you would probably never get). The sushi here is both better quality and a wider variety of stuff; Octopus, mackerel, tuna (of course), beef, sea urchin, salmon roe, and many other things that I am not sure of (although I think no whales or dolphins were harmed in the making of this sushi). Came to AUS $100 for the two of us, but it was good!
Then had a really hot onsen, which really relaxed my tired muscles!
The other people that booked through the same travel agent look to all be staying in the same hotel; They took the same flight out, and will take the same flight back, and are staying at the same hotel, so some days we have a little chat each morning about what we did yesterday or what we doing today, or whatever is our minds.
The weather here today was pretty bad; it rained rather than snowed, so everything got soaking wet. (The hotel really needs drying room, but doesn't have one.) Also there was low cloud so the visibility was bad, and at the top of the mountain it was the worst of all worlds - windy, cold, and snowing with snow that melted very rapidly, leaving you wet.
I went with my Dad to Hanazono area (which is another area, kind of like how Perisher Blue is 4 resorts - Perisher, Blue Cow, Smiggins, and Guthega). This was my first time in Hanazono, and the runs that we plotted out where all green runs and the numbers next to them (which are supposed to show the length of the run, the average angle, and the maximum angle, as well as the green/red/black grade) indicated that the runs that we took ("swing" and "holiday") should be fairly easy. However when we got higher it was much colder that at the bottom of the mountain (as Carrie says "it's a whole different mountain up there", because it changes completely by becoming more extreme when you go up a kilometre in height).
We kept going though, determined as ever, and started out OK. Hanazono's green run starts off as a long flat bit, and has another long flat bit at the end. However in the middle it has a bit where it gets fairly steep, and on this bit Dad misread the run and thought it would flatten out, so he went straight ahead, and picked up a huge amount of speed in a short distance; Since he is can currently only use snow ploughs to stop and turn, and snow ploughs basically stop working at high speed, he couldn't control himself and veered straight towards the trees. I could only watch in horror as he went full speed, head over heels into bank of snow and towards the trees. His skis went flying, and he rolled 4 or 5 times down the mountain. By the time he was done his skis were about 10 meters behind him, and I picked them up and asked him how he was. Nothing was broken, but he was pretty shaken. We went onto Hanazono's one cafe / restaurant, and had a rest.
Hanazono doesn't really have much there, we found. The restaurant is too far away from the lifts (about 100 metres, which is too far in skis if you have to skate it). There's nothing much else there, and only one series of lifts to get up the mountain, and only two main runs for coming down (one red/black, plus the green one that we did). So Hanazono seems much weaker to me than the other resorts.
Dad found that there are blocks of land up for sale within walking distance of the Hanazono Hooded Quad # 1 base lift for AUS $70,000 to $150,000 (if our maths is correct). Hanazono is currently pretty basic, and its connections to Hirafu are pretty weak. Also the bus to and from Hanazono is pretty rare - it only has a bus link twice per day (around 2:30 and 3:40, but were there around 11:30 AM). So this made it necessary to ski back from Hanazono, which we would have been better not doing. The free shuttle bus really needs to cover Hanazono as well, but doesn't currently.
After a break at Hanazono we continued on, trying to get back via a green run. In retrospect, we should have called a cab or something for Dad. We took the lifts up the mountain, and then took the "Holiday" run back. From the map, it would seem to be ideal for beginners because it is green with a good angle, and is nice and long. However in reality it has bits that are too steep for beginners, and long sections that are so flat and long that you run out of speed. The result for a beginner is alternating between terror and boredom!
On the run back Dad was really tired and just wanted to get back to base. He fell over several times more (had lost confidence at this point I think). The visibility was terrible (about 10 metres), and he was completely soaked from falling over, and from the rain. Pretty miserable and wet we got back. Then we had a really hot onsen, which helped. (By the way, we found out today that there are some mixed onsens here, which contrasts with the gender segregation that seems to be the norm; However although Japanese girls are up for it, by all accounts the Aussie girls are for the most part too conservative to give it a go!).
Then I had a snooze for a few hours, before we went for our sushi dinner. Before this, we watched about 15 mins of Japanese TV for the first time since we got here. Of course we could understand nothing that was said, but you can get the general idea from tone and body language and especially the set and visuals. They had a program on about holidaying in Dubai (a Japanese person who went there in summer would be in for a shock - it's easily hot enough to fry an egg on the pavement, and massively humid too), and a show all about seaweed (the foods they made from all that seaweed all look very unappetizing, such as seaweed and spaghetti and nothing else), and a chat show, and the news. The weather in Okinawa looked good, but if I've got our location right, we're probably in for snow overnight.
My shins today were still pretty sore, but I still can't tell if it is a permanent problem with my boots, or whether it is something you go through in the process of breaking in new boots. My main worry about tomorrow though is Dad, so we'll see how he is tomorrow and keep him to the green runs he knows. I don't think that he will go to An'nupuri now, which is a pity because I think he would like it.
Also found out that Aussies here are only around 10 or 15% of the visitor numbers. I would have thought it was more, but maybe they tend to go at similar times, or maybe I just notice the Australian accent more. They have a world wall map in the Hanazono cafe, which says "please add you name and mark where you are from", and there are a handful of Americans, a few Europeans, almost nothing from the rest of the world, apart from Japan and Australia which were both almost black with people writing their names and marking where they were from - so I guess that gives you a pretty fair idea of where most of the visitors here are from.
Tonight we had sushi again for dinner, but with a large helping of sake (which tasted surprisingly good), and tried some different things from the menu, including fried sushi (only very lightly fried), special roll (which was huge and had sashimi inside it), and salmon rice ball (basically a large ball of rice with a very small amount of salmon in the centre).
I'm typing this up in a cafe type of area, and there is a kind of corporate hotel celebration happening around me. The Japanese staff are *seriously* drunk, and very loud, and occasionally they break into song and start dancing. I'm trying to not be noticed! Dad made the observation that in Japan it is socially acceptable to be totally smashed, whereas in Australia once you get too drunk people generally start suggesting that maybe you want to slow down...
Some other thoughts about Niseko:
- Most of the runs here are not well signposted at all - they generally have no names or length of grade details shown. Mostly there are simply no signs at all. The signage really needs to be changed to be something like Perisher (big permanent wooden signs with run details).
- There is a hydrogen sulphide (rotten egg) smell that you sometimes catch around some of the lower lifts in Grand Hirafu. I finally worked out what this was - It's a natural smell from one of the geothermal onsens!
- The ski equipment availability in the shops here is pretty bad, so any visitors should bring their gear with them.
- The furthest we have walked for dinner is about 300 metres, and all of the restaurants and bars are contained within quite a small area.
- There is a "wine and dine" directory, which lists the various restaurants and gives a sample of items from their menus and prices.
- There is a high detail version of the Niseko trail map online, but you need Adobe Acrobat Reader version 6 or higher to be able to read it.
Some things were should learn from the Japanese:
- Onsens are amazingly relaxing after skiing, and are a perfect antidote to a hard today's skiing. We need to do this too!
- Japanese food is much healthier than western food, and we could learn a lot from how they eat.
- Sake is good!
- Vending machines everywhere is good. Vending machines everywhere that will sell you good beer is even better.
- To have a wider variety of drinks.
- The "skidata" lift pass system that is proximity-based and used by this resort means that no human ever needs to check your lift pass, and you only need to get it close to the sensor (the best thing seems to be to wear your pass as an armband).
- We should learn to speak Japanese as well as the Japanese speak English (which is often surprisingly good).
- The Japanese restaurants have a tradition of placing a selection from their menus (price + description + picture) outside their restaurants. This is very useful, and something more of our restaurants should do.
Things the Japanese need to learn from the west:
- To add drying rooms to all the hotels (the Scot Hotel does not have one, and as a result the heaters in the lobby are covered with damp gloves, goggles, and boots). It's very unsightly, hot enough to melt the plastic on our gloves, but there is no other sensible way to dry soaking ski gear.
- To throw away the weird constant heating kettles they have in the rooms, and replace them with real kettles. The constant heating kettles requires you to push down the top to get around a teaspoon of boiling water. So for a large mug of tea you need 20 or so pushes, each one splashing a few drops of boiling water!
- To properly signpost every ski run.
- To not add sugar to all the bread (all the bread here is sweet)
- To wax skis without requiring overnight to do it.
- To eat fruit, and drink real fruit juice.
- To run more free shuttle busses, more often, and to extend them to Hanazono.
- To have big boards (that are all networked together, so they are always current) that show which runs are open and which are closed, and which are on wind hold. There is one of these at Hirafu, but it's in the parking lot, and so is completely useless if you don't drive, or once you have your skis on. There also is a whiteboard in the lobby of the Prince Hotel, but it in Japanese, and it's manually updated by a guy on the phone with a whiteboard marker, so it's both hard to understand, and prone to being out of date. What's needed is a big board right next to the base of all three Gondolas, plus one at the base of the Ace Quad lift # 2, plus another near the base of King Lift # 1, plus one at the base of Hanazono. With these six boards at these key locations, you would instantly know what was open and what was not - but currently it's mostly flying blind.
- To maybe provide a lift that goes across the mountain, to provide an easy way for beginners to traverse the mountain (otherwise you need to use red and black runs to traverse, which means that beginners just don't traverse).
Also Niseko is currently in the middle of a real-estate boom, driven totally by Australians. The Japanese, who are just coming out of 15 years of almost no growth, largely caused by a property bubble they experienced, seem to think that the Australians are nuts paying such inflated prices for property.
There was no snow overnight, so the conditions started out pretty icy as it was yesterday's snow, but compacted up. Then in the morning it started snowing, and continued to snow lightly all day - I'm just happy as long as it doesn't rain, which it didn't! By the way, there is no artificial snow making equipment here, which something that I had noticed that's different from Australia.
Dad thinks his knee has swollen up a bit, but I can't really see the difference.
Dad wants me to add that the bathroom in our room is a little plastic modular thing; it is 6' 3" tall. The bath is 4' long, but deeper than a normal bath. Most people we suspect just shower or use the onsen.
We are coming to understand why Japanese tourists have a reputation for not leaving their hotels; The restaurants inside the hotels here are a bit more pricey than outside, but only around 15 or 20% more, as opposed to Australia where restaurants in hotels charge a premium of maybe 50% to 100%. So when it's snowing and dark and windy outside, it often makes much more sense to just eat in the hotel.
Some lifts are beginning to close early now, as we are getting to the end of their ski season (e.g. the Hirafu Gondola is closes at 4:30 PM as of the 11th of March). In general early March seems to be a lot closer to the end of the season than we thought. This also evident in the raining (rather than snowing) that happened yesterday.
Dad also found that NISS (Niseko International Ski School) lessons are marginally cheaper to buy in Australia than in Niseko (5940 Yen versus 6000 Yen). Also for the lessons if less than 3 people go for a given level, then the lesson only runs for 2 hours instead of 3 hours.
This morning I had a private one-on-one ski lesson, with a Japanese instructor called "Katz". I think his full name was Katzumo, but evidently people remember Katz, so that's what he uses. It wasn't supposed to be a private lesson, but only two people turned up for our level, and there were two instructors, so private lessons it was! Katz gave me some things to remember to try and improve my skiing, which I note here for my future reference:
- Always look down the mountain, not straight ahead, or at the skis. Head and shoulders should always face straight down the mountain.
- Bend down at the knees during the turn.
- Tap the snow lightly in front of me before going into the turn. This helps to initiate the turn.
- Keep my arms forward, and bent and away from the body. This helps balance.
- Practise sliding down the mountain and then turn quickly, and repeat. This exercise also helps to improve balance.
- Practise with crouching and swinging the poles in the snow in arcs as I turn. This helps to give the turn a nice smooth round form, rather than a sharp zigzag down the mountain, which I am prone to.
There were far more people on the mountain today. This is because it was a Sunday, and it wasn't raining, so people who live in Sapporo drive the 1.5 hours to Niseko to go skiing. Makes sense to me.
I asked my ski instructor about Furano (which is the ski resort in Hokkaido we were originally going to go to). He said it is the same size roughly as just Grand Hirafu. Niseko is apparently the biggest ski resort in Hokkaido. Furano and Rusutsu apparently are probably the next biggest resorts.
For lunch we ate at the J-First hotel. Dad and I both had the Yakitori set, which is kind of like Teriyaki chicken. It was very tasty, and good value, and in a good location, with a huge restaurant, which was completely empty apart from us! I guess everyone was up on the mountain.
The mountain that we are on has another resort next to An'nupuri - it's called Moiwa, and but it not part of the resort that we can use, or connected to it, and it only has 2 lifts. Only reason I mention this is I saw the lifts one day, and wondered what they were, since they weren't on our trail maps.
For dinner, I had raw Japanese-style tuna, plus a whole raw egg, served over hot plain rice - yummy! Dad had a crab hotpot, which he enjoyed. We've found that beers over here are rather dear in restaurants (around AUS $9, or 650 Yen, per glass seems to be typical in a restaurant).
The snow is currently building up into fresh powder, so the conditions should be great tomorrow and I should probably get going early; Especially so as our lift tickets expire tomorrow, at 4:30 pm on the dot. So I intend on boarding my last lift for the day to the top of the mountain at 4:29 PM, and then skiing all the way to the bottom!
The last full day of skiing. Skied from 8:30 AM sharp to 3 PM. Headed over to Higashiyama to get to some runs I hadn't done yet. After doing that, tried to board the Prince Gondola to get up the mountain and out of the resort. I was sitting in the Gondola and the doors had closed when there was an announcement in Japanese. I was then pulled out of the Gondola, and someone explained that due to high winds the Prince Gondola was being put on wind hold. There was no other way to get up the mountain, so it was either a bus across to An'nupuri, or a bus back to Hirafu. I checked inside the hotel, and An'nupuri was shut down too (all but two lower lifts were closed). So I had a 50 minute wait for the next bus to Hirafu, and chatted to some snowboarders from Canberra. Coffee and tea were overpriced at the Prince Hotel (650 Yen for a coffee, which will buy a Large Draft beer in a restaurant in Hirafu), so I just used their vending machine. Of course everyone else wanted out of Higashiyama too, so when the bus finally arrived I had to stand, and most people didn't even get on the bus. Standing for 15-20 minutes in a stinking hot bus in ski gear, stooped over because it was not tall enough, was not at all fun. I got out at the first stop just to get out of the bus, and double-timed it over to the Hirafu Gondola, and straight up to Hanazono. It was freezing up there - roughly -15 to -20C according to the large thermometer at Ace Hill. I started to get frostbite in my hands because my gloves got wet. Started to really want better gloves - leather is the best material apparently - with a much longer wrist section to give a good seal over the ski jacket.
Whilst waiting in the lift queue, an elderly Japanese guy pushed his way through the queue to the front, and on my lift, and the lifties didn't say a word and just let him through. He sat on the chairlift next to me for a few minutes picking his nose (seriously), and then started talking to me. He was actually quite an amusing guy - he was 70 years old, and had started skiing at 53. He didn't like powder, and much preferred to ski on ice. And every Japanese summer he travelled to New Zealand to ski. He quite liked New Zealand's Coronet Peak ski area, because he said it had lots of ice, and he had knick-named it "Concrete Peak"!
Then straight down the mountain, and back to the hotel at 3:05 PM, and then change, and then onto the 3:27 PM bus to Kutchan, the local major town (the equivalent of say Jindabyne). The streets of Kutchan were completely covered in snow, unlike Jindabyne most of the time. We looked at the 3 ski shops in Kutchan. Some of the gear was good prices, but the sizes were all wrong (e.g. sock sizes that maxed out at 27 cm, whereas my foot size is 29 cm). Dad found the same thing with ski pants (he wanted some with suspenders). Also there was a poor choice of gloves, which surprised me a bit because I would have imagined that anyone living in Hokkaido would want about 6 pairs of gloves.
Then we checked out a Japanese supermarket / department store, which was an interesting experience. Who knew that you could buy 4 litres (yes, 4 litres!) of scotch for AUS $39 in Japan? Then at 6 PM we got the free night bus back to Hirafu, and had dinner at the hotel - we both had sukiyaki beef, which is beef strips in a sweet broth, which you dip in raw egg, and then eat with rice. Very nice!
A day of logistics! Checkout of hotel, then half a day of skiing, then onsen, then lunch, then bus to Sapporo airport, then overnight return flight to Sydney.
The powder today was fantastic! It started snowing again yesterday, and continued snowing overnight, and did not stop. We bought 5 hour lift passes for 3400 Yen, and skied from lift opening at 8:30 AM sharp, through to midday when we had to stop in order to prepare for the bus. Skiing powder again was great! Had skied a bit of powder earlier in the week, but this was deeper and dryer powder and untracked. It is harder to ski in powder (deep powder slows you down more, and powder in general makes it harder work to turn). I fell over many times in powder because of this, but it is completely painless because the powder cushions your fall. At one point I headed into a bank of deep powder, and was being followed by two Aussies who were clearly quite good skiers. I stacked it completely when I tried to turn, and as I dug myself out of the deep powder one of them gave me the thumbs up as he skied past, and yelled out: "Good one!" :-) One small downside of powder is that putting your skis back on in deep powder is difficult and slow, because the powder sticks to the bottoms of your boots, and in the ski bindings, and you sink much further into the powder than your skis.
Then we went straight from skiing into the onsen, and then changed into street clothing for the journey home, and packed away ski gear. Dad and I had final lunch with Brad and Carrie; Dad had sushi (his personal favourite), and I had port cutlet and rice (my personal favourite).
I slipped and fell in the parking lot on black ice (for the second time) - this is in addition to other people (Dad, Carrie) falling there on previous days. The most dangerous part of the whole trip wasn't the skiing, but rather the damn black ice in that car park.
The bus back to Sapporo took 2 hours and 10 minutes, and it skipped Rusutsu because of the snowy weather conditions. The route took us past Lake Shikotsu (which we had not seen on the way down when we were travelling at night).
Sapporo's New Chitose Airport has a food section with lots of stores on the arrivals level. This includes fresh seafood (hairy crabs, ordinary crabs), chocolates, sake, and various touristy knick-knacks. After checking into the flight, we bought various things (dark chocolate, green algae "pets", some chocolate corn sweets, some local beers, some more sake, some Choya Umeshu). We tried to spend every bit of Japanese currency that we had, because the exchange rate back and the exchange fees meant that it isn't worth converting the AUS $200 we had left back into Aussie dollars. In the end, we came away with AUS $1.50 in Japanese loose change.
On the plane we spoke briefly to Steve Kelso, who had been the tour organiser, and who was returning from visiting Furano (and other locations). Asked about Furano as it had been our first choice of location, and he said that Furano is a fairly straight forward ski field with some great runs, and one pass covers the mountain. Furano is a different experience to Hirafu. Off-piste is currently prohibited but with signs of some lessening of the rules. There are some limitations on pre-packaging the ski pass in Furano at the moment, but depending on decisions over the coming Japanese Spring/Summer they will know if it is more economical for clients to buy the pass pre-packaged or in Furano. For the heavy-duty guys wanting ungroomed snow, day trips to a couple of nearby resorts including Asahikawa are appropriate.
Had 3 beers on the plane, and then took a Valium that Dad had brought especially for us for the flight back so that we could sleep. I dozed in and out of sleep, and maybe got 4 hours sleep before they turned on all the lights about 1.5 hours out of Sydney.
Our approach took us over the city and then Botany Bay, landed around 6:40 AM. After clearing immigration and customs, and joining the taxi queue, we immediately noticed the humidity. Good to be home, but also feeling sad to not be on holiday at Niseko any more.
Would I go again? Hell yes! Would I recommend others go? Definitely.
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