Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Snowflakes and cherry blossom

Skiing in Niseko, Japan.

From the top of the slope it looked a long way down. And very steep. Snowboarders spilled off the lift every few moments and then went whizzing down past me. I looked down again. It still looked very steep.

We'd gone night skiing. The slopes of Hirafu, in Niseko, Japan, are flood lit by night and open for those who haven't clocked enough hours during the day. It was the first time we'd skied that part of the mountain.

I need to explain my skiing. This was my third time. I am not yet a confident skier. When I'm on slopes I know and have got into my stride I can be okay. When I get nervous all my technique goes, I tense up with terror and return to a Frankenstienesque snow plough.

I started to ski down to where the DFP was beckoning to me, a bit further down the slope. It still looked very steep. The snowboarders were still whizzing past me, the snow humpy and churned up. I started skiing down and lost my nerve big time, took off my skis and walked back up the slope. (Oh the shame). I started approaching people and asking 'Green? green? Where is the green slope?' But they were Japanese and couldn't understand me. One of them pointed to the slope I'd been standing on and said 'black'.

Eventually I found the green slope craftily hidden in the opposite direction. The beginners bypass was smooth and untouched. The snow was thick and powdery, like mounds of cream and icing sugar. No one else takes the beginners bypass at that time of night. I calmed down and skied down to find the DFP who'd been looking for me.

Niseko is famous for its powder. It's an island in the far north of Japan, a couple of hours by plane from Tokyo. The snow comes in droves, chilled by Siberia. Hokkaido ends up with snow piled high as late as March when the famous cherry blossom is starting to bloom everywhere else in Japan.

Even more wonderful than the snow is the food. I love Japanese food anywhere in the world and here we ate some amazing meals.

On our last night we went to Racuikhi, which I highly recommend to you. It's a tiny place, only ten seats along a bar over which you watch the husband and wife team prepare the meal and serve you. She was dressed in full kimono.

It's hidden, far out of town, at the end of a snowy walkway. We watched him make the noodles for the soba, which it's particularly famous for. At night they only serve one set menu. There's no choice, you get what they prepare, but there's no problem with that. Course after course of stunningly tasty mouthfuls. The scallop sashimi was creamy and light. I've never tasted anything like it. The tempura so light you could hardly believe it had been fried. The dashi (stock) for the soba was a thing of beauty. Everything was elegantly presented and served with immaculate care and politeness.

I know it's what the Japanese are famous for, but their politeness and awareness of other people was so refreshing. We were staying at the Hilton, which is twenty minutes by shuttle bus from the main town. We were waiting for it to leave one night and all the seats had been filled. Even the first few pull down seats in the aisle had been taken. A few more people arrived and immediately those seated in the central aisle jumped up. Children were moved, people gestured down the bus, everyone took responsibility for making sure that the new people could be seated. What a change after Singapore where people get into the MRT train and stop by the door ignoring those trying to get in or out, where people stand in front of the train doors and start getting in before the other passengers have left, where people refuse to move down the carriages. It drives me crazy.

The best thing about staying at the Hilton was the onsen downstairs. Onsen are hot, communal baths found all over Japan. They are full of volcanic minerals, each onsen has different minerals and different healing qualities. A dip in an onsen is the perfect respite to a days skiing.

As this is Japan of course there is a certain way to do the onsen. First you shower. Then you go outside to the pool with only a small hand towel covering your front, like a curtain to hide your bits. Outside the air is -5. When I sat in the 42 degree water and leaned over the edge, the modesty towel folded on my head like a pro (ready to cover myself as soon as I emerged) the snow sizzled and melted as it landed on my arms. Around the pool the snow was piled deep, enormous icicles reaching up and down.

It took me a while to get over the embarrassment of being starkers in a pool full of Japanense ladies. They all seemed very relaxed with themselves, from the very young to the very old, happily letting it all hang out, with their little hand towels folded on their heads.

(Initially I tried to be all western and take a big towel with me but learned the hard way that it does not work. There was nowhere to put the big towel. I had to leave it balanced on a wall where it got snowed on. Then getting out of the pool and retrieving it was a scramble before I was covered up again. Small towel folded on head is definitely the way to go. All you need to do when you stand up is reach to the top of your head and bingo!)

On the way back we had one night in Tokyo. One night in Tokyo is not enough. Immediately I arrived I knew I wanted to come back. As we came in on the train from the airport the cherry blossom was blooming.

We were staying in Asakusa which is an older district of Tokyo with a famous temple called Senso-Ji. After the westerness of the Hilton I had booked us into a cheap ryoken for our night in Tokyo. Ryoken are traditional Japanese inns with tatami mats on the floor and futons which get rolled out for you to sleep on. In the really posh ones they come and serve you many course meals in your rooms and there's an onsen to bathe in. Ours was not one of these. It was very tiny, but very clean and everything worked perfectly.

We went for a wander through the humming market we were staying in the centre of and down to the temple. Then we headed into the city to explore the different districts. We went to the geek district famous for it's 'maid cafes' and the fashion district. We saw it here first – Mormon chic. (Teenagers dressed in black hats and long black coats.

Not enough time. Not enough time and we had to come back. Japan is high on my list for a re-visit.