It’s been a little while, but thankfully the last month and a bit has been thematic enough that I don’t feel the need to do as I did last post — plus that would be milking it. In short, it’s been snowing a lot and generally hovering, if the weather cards the students pick at the start of every lesson are to be believed, between ‘cold’ and ‘freezing.’ Other phrases regarding the degree of feeling in parts of one’s anatomy also spring to mind when trying to describe the temperature, and the fact that the only insulation I have consists of some bubble wrap on the single-glazed windows and walls which might actually be made of cardboard means that it’s scarcely better indoors.
Nevertheless, this climate means that snow-related activities are abundant, and it’s about these that I want to talk to you today.
Sliding down mountains
Yes, this is the big one. Turns out living in the mountains of nowhere has it’s advantage, and that is that I have a big ol’ ski resort less than an hour’s drive away from my house. After-work skiing isn’t something I’m used to, but it’s possible at half an hour’s notice, especially seeing as I am now the proud owner of some too-cheap skis and some too-expensive boots — thanks, Japanese average shoe size.
It’s a good thing that night skiing (or ナイター/naitaa) exists, because it still gets dark before 6pm here. Maybe it’s just because I’m paying attention to it more, but Japan seems to get dark much earlier than the UK. This seems geographically unlikely though, so I’ll chalk it up to perception. Either way, the ski lifts for the day session close at 4pm with good reason, but the night sessions runs from 5-9pm. At Zao (my local resort) there are a very limited number of runs open, but it’s cheap and far better than nothing.
Of greater note was the Tohoku AJET ski trip, which was almost entirely attended by Yamagata JETs. Coming as I do from a ski holiday background, I was ready at 9am on day one after a nice early drive and some rental fun, during which I spoke to a very Irish woman in her 70s who has been coming to Zao with her husband annually for the last ten years. Perhaps because I got some rapport going with one of his regulars, the rentalguy gave me some burnt sugar sweets which were invaluable during the long cold waits for the gondola. They seemed to have decided that weekend skiing is for ninnies, however, as the gondolas only ran once every five minutes or so. That meant a lot more queueing and a lot less skiing, but it was worth it for the glorious powder at the top.
Zao is notable both for skiing and onsen, which are delightful and rather sulphurous. I hadn’t realised how welcome this is after 8 hours throwing oneself down a mountain. When it was time for the enkai, we attacked the one-hour all-you-can-drink in our yukata and were, by and large, much the worse for it. There’s nothing like time pressure to foster irresponsible drinking. After the ‘meal,’ it was off to the hotel’s ‘pub’ for more drinks (this time a BYOB situation which translated to ‘the biggest bottle of sake you could find in Family Mart) and an ancient (by Japanese standards) karaoke machine that still required you to find the song codes in a big books. Finally we dispersed, and some of us went to a bar which does excellent, if expensive, craft beer and pizza. Unfortunately, by this time I was in no state to appreciate either, and had to leave early.
While they are generally regarded as placebos, I have come to place great faith in small bottles of vitamin drinks that are front-and-centre in any convenience store. For me, at least, they are remarkably effective at preventing a hangover if I can drink one before or during a night out. This was not one of those nights. As such, I awoke at 7am the next morning to bear the full brunt of at least five varieties of alcohol in prodigious quantities wreaking vengeance on my body. I was able to stumble to breakfast, but it became increasingly clear that I was quite unfit to ski. The only logical option was to drink a bit of water and get into an old rickety car and drive for an hour down an icy mountain, stopping on the way to buy the aforementioned skis so I could be prepared for my next trip.
Sliding along pavements
It wasn’t all getting drunk and skiing, though. Sometimes I got drunk and went to places, too. One of these places was Sendai, where I met up with Jaz for a weekend of trying not to fall into the path of oncoming traffic. We visited the same mausoleum as I did with my parents, which felt rather different in the snow. The other place of note was the Sendai Daikannon, a 100m tall statue of a Buddhist deity into which one can enter and take a lift to the top. Then you walk down a spiral staircase past 108 statues of buddhas, ostensibly to pray at each one. This would have taken hours, so we consoled ourself with merely photographing the most interesting ones.
The next weekend it was off to Nagai for a very very small snow lantern festival. A summer matsuri it was not, but it did feature very cute children in ridiculous hats, so who’s the real winner here?
But Sendai pales in comparison to the mammoth weekend that was the Sapporo Snow Festival. You’ve almost certainly seen photos of the 10m-plus snow sculptures, so here are some more from this year’s iteration. Alongside the corporate-sponsored centrepieces, there were snow sculpture displays from various countries, even more corporate-sponsored ice sculptures, and, of, course, Hawaiian dancing. According to Hokkaido friends, it’s more common than one might think, but here it was especially admirable because of the temperature.
On this day Jaz and I were able to meet up with Essex friends of the show Max and Mel for the first time since we all arrived in Japan six months ago. Thanks to them I have seen the light (in bread terms) and it is Donguri. Just look at this absolute bombshell of a bakery.
An enkai on the first evening started on time, but the kanpai (toast, and marker than you can eat/drink) was delayed for almost an hour, by which time everyone had started drinking anyway and its power was severely weakened. This left me with about an hour of free drinks, which, as I did at Zao, led to great quantities of divers alcohol being ordered and imbibed. Somewhere over the course of the night I managed to ride a ferris wheel on top of a building, go bowling in various wigs and attempt karaoke — ‘The Triple,’ as I believe it is known Thankfully this time I remembered my vitamins and was thus alive the next day.
The journey home was a little fraught thanks to even more snow than usual falling around Sendai airport. One earlier group’s flight was cancelled, leaving them to take a standing-room-only shinkansen for seven and a half hours. My group were a little more lucky, but as Jaz was to come back to mine for a birthday together we ended up sharing a rented car and driving home from the airport, rather than taking Jess’s car as I had on the way up.
Now all that’s out of the way, here’s a huge gallery of miscellaneous photos which I’ll graciously let you link to their respective events. I’ll check in again probably far later than I’d like, especially if I need to be defrosted by the firefighters in the morning. Peace out.