Monday, January 30, 2006

Tōkyō tidbits

After our birthday was officially over, Eriko and I both a year older, my memory loss didn't really kick in for another 2 weeks, but I was preparing all the same. Getting lost in Tōkyō is not something I had time for, so I snapped the ticket for a safety rail, should I end up in more trouble than usual. There's always a few emergency service numbers one should have at hand while visiting the big city.

chicken dance (on Vimeo)If you can't beat them, join them. Having already agreed to the alcoholic necessity for life in Japan, I went in search for what the locals might be getting into. Crazy Chicken is just the stuff - not! 15% alcohol content is possible, but the label was scaring the bejesus out of me!

Instead of watching my wallet carefully (I'd already blown an extra 20 thousand yen on this holiday) we joined the masses and went shopping! Free things to do in Tōkyō seemed like a good idea, but somehow it just never works out that way. After a strange bite to eat, Eriko checked out this kinky outfit. Later she ended up buying a little black number as a birthday present for me.

I was rather impressed with the collection of birthday presents I scored this year. Back in Hiroshima, Emma gave me a book, Tabloid Tōkyō which reads a bit more bravely than this blog...
Japundit » Tabloid Tōkyō was the top selling "nonfiction on Japan" book at Tower Records in Tōkyō recently. The book, edited by a crack team of Tōkyō translators and editors, features translations of some of Japan’s wildest tabloid and weekly magazine articles.

Each week, the team combed the Japanese-language weeklies - lurid, quirky and irreverent - and this new book covers the past four years.

What’s inside? Stories about sex, criminal shenanigans and scandals. Japanese families - dysfunctional and otherwise - and the economy. Pets, fashion, trends and much, much more. As a picture of contemporary Japanese society, readers will find this collection often informative, sometimes shocking, but always entertaining.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

busts, birthdays, books, bollocks

chocolate breastsBizarre things often happen in Japan. Birthday discount on domestic flights was the saviour of the day. Before I even went on this little holiday though, I received chocolate boobs as a present. What kind of country is this that produces such a thing? I am fast learning yet even more culture shock from a great book, Tabloid Tōkyō: 101 Tales of Sex, Crime and the Bizarre from Japan's Wild Weeklies, also a belated birthday present.

This year my B'day began with 8am Japanese style breakfast in the beautiful snowy Niseko. I asked Kuni to thank his wife for being a brilliant cook. After helping the driver load everyone else's luggage on the bus, I hopped on and got back to sleep. A 10 minute stop at Forest 276 for a hot coffee can from the bank of vending machines would be the last footprints I make in Hokkaido's snow.

Kusunoki MasahigeFear rose up inside me as the fully loaded jumbo-jet brought me down into the busy cities of Tōkyō. The train connection through to Tōkyō station was pretty straight-forward. With a couple of hours to kill, the information booth lady suggested the Imperial Palace gardens. I wandered around until I bumped into the rather awesome horse-mounted samurai statue of Kusunoki Masahige.

Tokyo Tower
Tōkyō Tower,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
Free-riding the elevator in Tokyo Tower.Finally met up with my old house-mate Eriko, wished her happy birthday (in Japanese and English) then presented my gift to her, some Hokkaido chocolates - white of course! Eriko's class-mate, Asaka, soon joined us and away we went to Tōkyō Tower. This turned out to be a great idea, not just for fantastic views of the blaring lights burning into the black of night, but since it was both Eriko's and my birthday, we got free entry and cake.

My first time to visit the Doma Doma restaurantWe soon found ourselves in Doma-Doma, chatting, eating and drinking sake and beer until the last train shuttled us to Eriko's place. I'd nearly forgotten 24hour supermarkets exist. We stopped in for some supplies to carry on the mood until sleep eventually overcome us. Asaka is an impressive snorer!

Saturday, January 28, 2006

to beer, or not to beer?

Niseko - Sapporo Ski Express
Niseko - Sapporo Ski Express,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
Shortly after my arrival in Japan, an Australian hiking friend confessed that living here turns us into alcoholics. A couple hundred sun-rises later and I'm in total agreement.

I could've easily skiied on another 8-hour ticket and called it quits at that. Instead I made the express train to Sapporo in search of the beer culture.

Out the train window, it was amazing to see the snow washing up on the rocky beach along the Otaru coast. Sapporo station is an enormous maze, perhaps a warning of what lies ahead for me in Tokyo tomorrow...

snowy times at the Sapporo Beer MuseumI managed to locate the beautiful red brick structures, but after 5 minutes of trudging around in the snow lined streets, couldn't find an entrance! Clambering over a fence and through a line of bushes I found myself at the taxi stand by the front door.

Here's my message to all you fellows out there aspiring to check out famous breweries around the globe: snub Sapporo off your list. Save your hard-earned and buy a slab of it instead. Not that it costs anything to wander through the beer museum; but I think there was a total of 8 words of English in the entire premises. It's more a company history and there's no tour guide even if you do speak the lingo; you don't really get any insight into the production of beer; the thing that ripped me the most was the souvenir shop at the end was rather lacking in beer related products (tea, coffee, sweets, key-chain crap, chocolate, seaweed) - some of the goods weren't even from Sapporo so I am a little bewildered as to why they were there.

A kindergarten teacher named Michiko decided she'd do her good deed for the day. In Sapporo station she guided me through the maze of restaurants, shops and citizen thoroughfares to the bus terminal. I was incredibly grateful and made the bus with only 1 minute to spare.

Thanks for reading. You've earned yourself one. So reach open your fridge and crack open your favourite brew. Cheers. Kampai!

Friday, January 27, 2006

deep, soft adventure

Post-breakfast fish burps aren't the nicest way to start the day. There's absolutely nothing to do here except ski... So I bought an 8-hour ticket in the powder skiiers paradise!

Friends and I jumped on the chairlift to the heavens. Hanazono #3 was our chosen lift for the first morning session, including some practice hammering through the trees - and the cool thing here is when you crash, as long as you're not wrapped around a tree, you fall into snow as soft as ... well, really soft.

Alongside the terrain park down under Hanazono #1 is my absolute favourite run. The late morning was spent there practicing any one of the great tips I received from skiing with the Crebbin posse.

View this video clip on Vimeo.
After nearly all of us ate the same lunch, Kim, Steve and Steve took me up for the summit traverse and off to a land of beautiful untracked powder. The resistance in the soft and deep snow was perfect for controlled turns. That same snow is not so great when we ended up trudging a couple of kilometres. The slog out of nowhere was tough going, but we used the Tour de France team method of rotating the fresh man to break trail at the front.

Some guy driving a big truck told us off for skating along the road, then helped us with some vague directions to get back. Past the golf course and we made it back to Hanazono #1 before it closed.

hot drinks in the Ice Bar
hot drinks in the Ice Bar,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
In the igloo known as Ice Bar, we enjoyed hot drinks and had a laugh at the deep, soft adventure story. This bar is a complete novelty with the architecture, the drinks menu, the 3-D glasses that give kaleidoscope flowers to the fairy lights; I recommend a visit if you are in the area.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Australia Day for expats

happy skiiers
happy skiiers,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
I crawled out of bed for a breakfast without fish! Up to Pension Create I met up with Steve and Belinda also on their Telemark gear, and Kim (a.k.a. Kimiko). We imediately headed for the warmer hooded chairlifts in the Hanazono area. My gloves had taken on a foul stench the last couple of days, so this morning I threw 2 drops of Menage Adventure aftershave in each glove. The sickly sweet smell was over-kill, especially when confined under the protective helicopter-like hood of the chairlift.

jump for Australia Day (on Vimeo)Eventually the Terrain Park was opened and we let loose with tele's and turns down my favourite run. After octopus bits for lunch, we headed out for another round of survival skiing as complete body fatigue set in.

Australia Day dinner was at a new izakaya that was really a restaurant. A TV crew came in and filmed us singing Waltzing Matilda then interviewed a couple of the more famous Australians at our table.

Seicomart once again welcomed us, where we all bought cheap ice-creams. A couple of farewells and goodnights were said as we laughed at others slipping on the icy bar at the door-step.

Some fireworks were launched into the night air while I stood knee deep in powder snow out the front of the hostel. I'm knackered. Time for sleep.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

dreams come true

Steve, Judy, Steve and Kim
Steve, Judy, Steve and Kim,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
The burning in my thighs subsided to that cosy warm feeling that puts one to sleep. Last night I doubled the futon with a spare and slept soundly.

Biting the head off, then finishing the fish in a second mouthful is the style of eating breakfast here. Racing the boys out the door, I bolted up the road to Toyru where my prayers had been answered. I thanked the guy in the shop and clomped away to Pension Create. Steve and Kim donned their final layers (including helmets) and away we went.

Niseko Grand Hirafu Hanazono area mapThe guts of the day was spent skiing, getting tips from experts, taking a few photos, practicing advice I'd been given, crashing, having smiles and laughs with friends. We generally stuck to the hooded quad lifts in the Hanazono area and only stopped for lunch at the Hanazono Rest House. After we'd filled up with delicious and decent helpings of food, a line through the treed area Strawberry Patch began to show all my weaknesses. The powder snow was deep and soft. As the afternoon wore on, my crash frequency increased exponentially until we called it a day.

Stumbling like a drunkard stagger back to the hostel, I dumped my new skis then crawled back to Toyru to collect my reject skis and my sneakers.

6pm dinner is always fantasticMy tired body began to drift off in the 10 minutes before our 6pm dinner. Amazing food. In Taro's car we loaded Tama, Miyuki and I and headed for Makkari onsen. It was the first time I'd been in an onsen and I reckon this might be one of the best in Japan. The rock spa in the open air with snow all around the place and a view of the mountain under the night lights - simply heaven. 68kg was my check out weight.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

worst ski nightmare!

The super thin futon and the kerosene warmth in the room made for an interesting sleep. At 8AM sharp our Japanese style breakfast was served. The boys scoff their food and head out the door, keen as ever to make fresh tracks. I was running a few minutes late and missed the boat of the HMAS Crebbin Ski Machine.

Niseko: Family run was mobbed by hundreds of bib-wearers so I continued up the second lift, the ACE #2 quad. The snow under my dangling feet is so deep that the lack of safety bars on the chairlift doesn't really bother me, it's only a short drop.

At the Ace Hill Rest House the wind blew a gale, discouraging loitering. Down the Furiko (Pendulum) intermediate slope, survival was simply a matter of skill. However the connecting Alpen green run shallows out and nothing short of endurance will bring you down in one piece. Just when I was getting used to the burning thigh muscles on my 7th or 8th run, one ski detached from the binding and screamed off down the mountain, "Oh bugger!"

landing site of the run-away ski!
landing site of the run-away ski!,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
Initially I was confused, the runaway leash was still connected to my boot. Walking down the remainder of the slope, I noticed an ambulance and a small crowd gathered - not the best time to ask if anyone has seen a run-away Telemark ski... About to give up my search when I spotted the beast T-boned into the rear tyre of a little black Suzuki. Great, now what do I do?

Back at the hostel, the manager Kumi outlined details of a shop that stocks Telemark ski gear in the next town. A 1:20pm bus took me into Kutchan and with Kumi's directions I easily found the Sport Takiguchi store - closed! With broken ski bits in my arms and almost tears, a girl behind me says, It's closed. So quickly the Northern hemisphere winter holiday I've been dreaming of for years, turned into my worst nightmare.

Then she told me that another sport shop is across the road. Boom is the dodgiest shop but I was desperate. I bought some old stock on special, but the guy had no clue about mounting Telemark bindings at all. Back to Hirafu on another bus and soon Kumi directs me to a workshop. Finally the guys at Toyru (who have more Telemark gear than I have ever seen in my life) put my mind at ease promising a tomorrow morning turn-around.

Kim and I at the doorI drop in to Pension Create to catch up with the Crebbin crew. My late return to the hostel earns me a lecture from Kumi about dinner time, My wife likes to serve it hot. Again dinner is served with cutlery and my competence with these tools is waning.

Monday, January 23, 2006

white touch-down

  1. The ¥11,500 yen taxi to airport cost me one-third of my plane ticket price!
  2. The ANA check-in lady asked me if I want a window seat. Then after X-raying my baggage, she told me it's snowing in Sapporo so the flight might be diverted to Tokyo!
  3. Next the personal X-ray machine beeped and I had to put their slippers on to re-enter the X-doorway - meanwhile, I'm sure they are retracting the boarding bridge!
  4. Finally I managed to get on the plane that was heated to well over 30 degrees and yet still some passengers were wearing their beanies and jackets.
  5. The flight over the sea suddenly changed to a big white island...
Almost a ski-plane
Almost a ski-plane,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
Hokkaido: The whole world here is completely covered in snow. The plane touched down on a black strip surrounded by white. Helpful airport stuff directed me onto the bus, which disappeared into what we'd call a snow storm back home. The 3:20pm bus ploughed through a land of ice and snow until the driver pulled over to let another fire truck drive past.

Niseko YubokuminFor night skiing, the mountain is lit up like a Christmas tree. The bus dumps everyone into the dark cold night. A Welcome Centre staff, Emiko, was knocking off for the night and offered me a lift to Yubokumin. Rather lucky for me as I had no map and calling the hostel was a communication challenge.

Dinner the minute I walked in the door. I turned down the offer of a lift to the local onsen and searched for my Aussie mates instead. Aussies dominate the entire village, so it was a little like finding needles in a haystack, but they were in Hank's bar. A beer and a chat followed by a visit to the enigmatic Seicomart before we called it a night.

after dinner banter¥10,000 yen later and I've got my lift ticket for the next 3 days sorted. The 2 meals and accommodation seems like a great deal, staying with friendly Japanese people who enjoy knocking back a bit of sake or shochu at night. Finally my dream holiday is happening...

Friday, January 20, 2006

powder dreams

James turning the white stuff Yesterday's ski trip to Megahira included some Brad Pitt - Fight Club style sunglasses, plastic fence collection, Michael Jackson impressions and a massive mama lunch.
Japan Travel Information | Lonely Planet Destination Guide: Snow Hazards
More than eighty people have been killed by record snowfalls in Japan's north and northwest. As affected areas begin to thaw, travellers are warned of avalanche, landslide and flooding dangers. The Niigata, Nagano and Akita prefectures have received the heaviest falls. Travellers should monitor consular and local Japanese news outlets before travelling to affected areas.
So that's why my friend Rie cancelled going skiing with me last Sunday!

Meanwhile, the conditions at Niseko, next week's destination...
The Alpen Hotel is having a Jazz Night on January 27. The evening starts with a meal and drinks at 7pm. Advance sales are ¥4500 yen per person. Always a fantastic evening - book now to avoid disappointment!
Sapporo breweryAnd if things are really bad, there's always the Sapporo brewery. Mmm, beer...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

rippin' it up

Wes rippin it up
Wes rippin it up,
originally uploaded by vfowler.
An open mic' night last Friday at our beloved Mac bar. Videos 1 and 2 from Wes' set. The first is his cover of JJ Cale's After Midnight and the second is a Wilco song I'm the man who loves you. A great version of Dire Straits So Far Away was thrown in and the finale track of the set was Wes' own material!

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

"Are you the key master?"

"Are you the key master?"Busshari-to | Peace Pagodatakoyaki, a local specialtyKris-Kross will make ya...
friends The Peace Pagoda and Futaba-Yama made a great winter walk, with Hiroshima friends. Kate and I walked up, while the others grabbed a taxi from the station. I finally discovered the name tako-yaki for the octopus legs inside a saucy dough ball - very tasty. Spirits cleansed after walking through 100 torii gates, we can now go on to make more mischief for the new year.