jeudi, avril 16, 2015

First Time Skiing in Japan (Niseko, Hokkaido, March-April 2015)

View of Mount Yotei (Ezo Fuji)

With the exception of The Young Adult who started at age 4, my kids started learning how to ski when they were barely 3. No matter where we were in the world (e.g. USA, Germany, Italy...), we would return to France to ski in the French Alps.

We did that 3 years running even when we were living in China. It was a total hassle, very tiring, not to forget expensive. One year we had a connecting flight (Paris to Lyon) cancelled, had our baggage (containing the ski suits) delayed, and missed our bus connecting Lyon airport to the ski station. Total nightmare.

Call it ski chauvinism, but Hub and the kids were convinced (still are) that there is nowhere better or more suitable for alpine skiing than the French Alps. Until the year before, the Babies were also taking ski lessons with the Ecole Française du Ski (ESF) and only decided to stop when they all had their Bronze Star. Baby Boy now talks of eventually trying for the Gold Star, probably because he realises that he could still improve his technique and enjoy skiing even more as a result.

I decided to put a stop to this skiing business for this year, for no way was I going to go through all that hassle yet again for a week of freezing cold and sore legs. Needless to say I'm hopeless at the sport, having picked it up too old and being afraid of my own shadow. I'm totally out of shape, so skiing can only be a torture for me. Yet I've reached the stage where I get really bored doing the easy runs and am too slow for the more challenging ones.

Looking at their disappointed faces, I relented and proposed a compromise: why don't we go to Korea (because air tickets are cheaper)? Hub was absolutely not motivated as he had never heard of Korea being a great place for skiing. I reminded him of the Winter Olympics, but he just had to be stubborn about it.

Then I remembered Japan. I have a friend who has been skiing there for nearly 2 decades and loved it. Hub has heard good things about Niseko too, about the powder snow, important snowfall and the efficient logistics. By the time we decided to go, the only holidays we had left was Spring/Easter Break, so we bought tickets to New Chitose for end March, booked a log cabin at Hirafu and prayed for snow.

On the way to Niseko

We arrived in Hokkaido on a sunny day and the plane (China Eastern), miraculously, was on time. We even had the time to grab a delicious pasta lunch before we settled onto our comfortable Hokkaido Resort Liner bus to Hirafu. The transfer lasted 2,5 hours and we were picked up at the Hirafu Welcome Centre by our hosts Tohsan and Kahsan of Fullnote Pension.

During peak season, it will probably not be possible for us to sleep in the log cabin which can house up to 10 people. But we were more or less the only guests there that week, it being almost the end of the Season. In fact, most restaurants were closed or closing, many shuttle buses stopped running and even the airport transfers would stop a week after our departure (or already had).

Fullnote log cabin

But we had our log cabin. It had a living area with a tiny kitchen in a corner (even a piano), a loft with tatami sleeping area and a basement with a WC, bath and 2 bedrooms. The smell of fuel was a little too strong in the basement and I worried a little about the kids suffocating in their sleep, but apparently they survived. Breakfast was included and freshly prepared each morning in the main house where there are rooms and shared toilets and showers, as well as a live jazz bar.

Shaba shabu at the pension

We rented our skis from Tohsan (the pension owner) and he also took charge of our ski lift passes. You could also order dinner from him (usually weekends) and we asked for shabu shabu on Friday evening which was done just the way we liked it. Very gentle and kind hosts who would drive us to and from the main ski lifts, while a free shuttle service from Hanazono stops just opposite Woody Note which is run by Tohsan's younger brother.

Skiing in Grand Hirafu

We had lovely weather most days except for one where it rained non-stop all day. It was amazing skiing with sunshine and under blue skies, and they were not exaggerating when they mentioned powder snow because it was the most beautiful snow I've ever skied on. The French Alps do indeed offer more exciting runs and gave meaning to alpine skiing, but one skies on volcanoes here in Niseko meaning usually wide runs that are not too steep. I also love the trees dotting the mountains in Hirafu and Hanazono, hopefully I will be good enough to paint them soon.

Love the trees

There are 4 ski villages here and we personally feel that concentrating on just Greater Hirafu (including Hanazono) is enough for a short week. The restaurant at Hanazono 308 was also our favourite though it was quite expensive. The teriyaki pork don was yummy.

Most amazing onion rings at Niseko Ramen

Food is a highlight of skiing at Niseko and it was unfortunate that so many eating places were already closed for the season when we were there. We managed to dine at Niseko Ramen next door on its last night open, at Nihonbashi in Kutchan (totally recommend) and at a few other places near our pension that were all quite good actually. I have put on 3 kgs after a week of ramen, different sweet-sauce meat-based dons, tempura, grilled fish, pizzas, fried chicken and yakitoris (because I do not eat raw fish). There is a Seico mart near our pension and we would visit it every day, lugging back choco pies, ice cream, Pokki sticks and soft drinks. You could hear HK tourists in the supermarket exclaiming over how cheap everything was, I guess at current exchange rates between the Yen and the HK Dollar, Japan must seem cheap to them.

I decided to take a break from skiing one day (also to give those poor guys a break as they were sick and tired of waiting for me on the runs) and explored lower Hirafu on foot. Love the architecture in the neighbourhood! Interesting combination of wood, concrete, lots of glass. Walked past the onsen (bath house), but the kids didn't like the idea of bathing naked with strangers (so prudish, mind you) so we didn't try it out.

Exploring lower Hirafu on foot

I wish we had discovered Niseko earlier. At the same time, the domains are not extensive enough for the rest of my family who are good skiers, but I certainly enjoy skiing there on that powder snow and very wide runs. There is also this dilemma about when best to go to Niseko; we enjoy skiing in late Winter/early Spring when the days are longer and there is usually sunshine, but it carries with it the risk of not enough snow. In Niseko, it also means fewer restaurants and buses and no live jazz at Half Note.

Finally, did I mention the heated toilet seats and integrated bidets almost everywhere in Niseko? Love it, such a clean and civilised country! Only at New Chitose airport were we reminded that we would be returning to China - starting at the check-in queue. Chinese family behind us literally stuck themselves onto our backs (instead of standing behind in the queue) when we were at the counter, and were complaining loudly when they were not served the minute the next counter was free (what was the point of sticking themselves to us actually when the queue was for 2 counters?)

Sayonara, Hokkaido, till the next time!

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