The Japan Diaries 2: A Season in Hokkaido
Words and pictures by Ben Strivens
Published November 2007
The day was overcast and dreary as the merry band of travellers set out from the warmth of the morning fireside. They had selected their weapons and armour. They had been dreaming of contact since their last encounter in May. They had a destination, a little regarded field in a small coastal town, and a mission, to locate that which had eluded them these past 6 months; the mighty yuki of Japan.
November 11th has finally arrived. We managed to join a teeming horde of idiots who couldn't wait another three weeks and hit the wonder that is "Onze". No one is quite sure how this tiny local ski resort came to be named after the French word for 11, nor why it is obsessed with the number (opening on 11/11, at 11a.m. until 11p.m.) but it is the first place that any of us can get our edges dug in before the magic snow dumps of late-November happen.
It was everything we expected and more. A narrow, packed corridor of ice chips. A lift line snaking round forever. Warm enough to wear a hoodie. Green enough on the sides to think it might be late summer. And a chair lift, rising magnificently into the sky. As the first bump of it kicked into the back of our legs we felt like we'd come home again.
One great thing about being surrounded by small mountains is that they all tend to be pretty local. They don't have hotels, there is no après ski, there's just the mountain and the people you see there day in day out. Not to everyone's taste, but if you just want to snowboard and you're not on holiday, it's perfect. It also means that you get to know a lot of people by sight if not by name, and it's pretty rare to go to one of Sapporo's satellite hills without seeing at least one person you can give a friendly nod, bow, wave or bear hug to. Opening day at Onze was no exception and the lift line, slope and tiny lodge were alive with the sounds of "Woooeur" (a sort of all-purpose surprise sound) and "O Hisashiburi" (long time, no see).
Once on the hill it took no time at all for the annual war of attrition with the patrollers to start. Japan has many fine qualities; it has a long and interesting history. It has a million thriving sub-cultures. It has a regional dish for every town in the country. It has cheap booze. But what Japan doesn't specialise in, and in fact rarely dabbles in at all, is flexibility.
We weren't doing anything radical. No breaking, spitting, fighting or biting. Just a wee bit of jumping around the sides of the "run." The middle was rapidly being mogulized by the mountain's ski team, and we thought we'd leave them to their fun and carve out a few channels on the edges to jump from. That is when the orange poles started appearing. In droves. Closely followed by the grey poles. Then the rusty old poles, and finally the poor patrollers themselves, who were forced to stand on the lip of the most recently created jumps for two hours, acting like poles.
When we asked the human fencing exactly why they were bothering, seeing as the only people left on the hill by this time were people who wanted to jump the sides or ski the centre, we received the catch all response to impudent foreigner questions:
"Nihon desu - This is Japan."
"Ah yes. So it is."
As I said before, Japan has a great many positive points, and if you ask most Japanese, at the number one spot is their food. There are very defined strata of restaurants in Sapporo. At the top are insanely expensive French, Kobe beef or Sushi places. Then there is everything else. Nearly all of them are very cheap and serve tasty food. For our post-opening day celebration we chose a "Yaki-Niku" (cooked meat) place. It's an imported dish form Korea, but very popular in Japan. It basically consists of a giant, cast iron, superheated skillet and a lot of raw meat and fish that you throw on for a few seconds, cover in sauce and then wolf down. This is all accompanied by a two hour "nomihodai" (a set price for as much booze as you can fit into your stomach/blood stream over a two hour period). The perfect end to a perfect day.
Next morning we went through the list. Hangover? Check. Sore arse? Check. Muscles that we had no idea existed aching like mad? Check. Idiotic grin remembering yesterday? Check.
Right, time to get back up there!
Tune in next month for part 3 of the Ben's Japan Diaries.