Exploring Tokyo

Today is our first full day in Tokyo, and with no big rush to be anywhere and with breakfast not included during this part of the stay, it was a bit more of a lazy morning to what we have been used to. We were still out ready to explore by 8:30am though, but by the time we got up the street Scott realised he was not going to make the day walking around with us, especially going up and down from subway stations. He therefore made the decision to do his own exploring closer to the hotel, and sent Denise and I on to explore on our own. After sorting out the purchase of a prepaid and reloadable public transport card, the first stop was Yoyogi park in Shibuya. With living space so tight in the city, parks are the places for club meetings and practice sessions and even play rehearsals, and Yoyogi draws all sorts of talent, from horn players to hip-hop dancers to rockabilly gangs, complete with poodle skirts and Elvis-inspired pompadours, who usually gather by the park’s east side entrance on Sundays to jam to American pop music from the ’50s. On Sundays you can also find the Gothic Lolitas and Cosplay kids, costumed fans of Japanese manga and anime characters, hanging out on the Harajuku bridge. Being a Monday however none of this was on offer, and the park was fairly quiet with only the occasional walker and children’s playgroups. There was many large trees forming what could basically be described as a mini forest, and walking tracks which make a nice escape for people from the city. Apparently there is also a little dog run where you can often see terriers decked out in rhinestones and denim or chihuahuas dressed like cheerleaders, however none of this was on offer either today. I will try to visit again next Sunday when it is supposedly lively, however I am due to depart the city for the Tokyo Bay on this day so I will see how I go.

Next stop was the Meiji Shrine adjoining Yoyogi park. Dedicated to the late 19th-century emperor who opened Japan to the West, Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine is wonderfully serene and austere, not colorful or flashy like other Asian places of worship. The 40-foot-high (12-meter) torii gates at the entrances to the 200-acre park and closer to the shrine itself are made of 1,500-year-old cypress. Before entering the shrine there is a cleansing station where you can dip into a communal water tank and purify your hands and mouth before offering up a prayer. You can also write wishes on little pieces of paper and tie them onto the prayer wall, or do as the locals do and toss some yen into the offering box then bow your head twice, clap twice, and bow once more. Sometimes on Sunday mornings you can also see a traditional wedding procession through the courtyard — the bride in a white kimono and hood and the groom in his formal black robe, walking together under a big red parasol, with Shinto priests leading the way and the rest of the wedding party trailing behind. Being a Monday again, no weddings in sight, but also being winter might play a part even if it were a sunday. There was however some small ceremony taking place with a large drum being played, however I have no photos of this as they were not permitted.

Jumping back on the train, we headed to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices building (TMGO) in Shinjuku which boasts two towers and two free observation decks on the 45th floors. While waiting for the elevator to the top we were approached by a building volunteer who offered us a free english guided tour of the building with an introduction to some Tokyo history. We gratefully accepted his offer, and Denise and I were soon off exploring the building and its contents in areas we would not have dared wandering alone incase we were not supposed to be there. This included the public offices of city enquiries, government assembly, and the halls filled with pictures of some of Tokyo’s history. The tour ended on the observation deck of the south tower, which is apparently better than the north tower which we were originally lined up for. From the top we moved window to window with the city’s major buildings and highlights being pointed out, including Mt Fuji in the distance (about 100km away). It is only visible from Tokyo for 80 days a year, so we luckily had one of the right days. After a very informative hour with our guide we parted ways and Denise and I decided to find somewhere to sit and have a break. My earlier research had suggested the bar on the top floor of the Park Royal Hotel, a swanky and pricy New York style bar, is a great place for a drink with great views of Tokyo. This building is where the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ staring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray was filmed. Not knowing however whether it was open or even whether they even serve coffee, we still wandered over to check it out only to find it is only open of an evening. I might end up coming back and giving this one a go later if I am in the area.

In my Tokyo research I had read it would be a shame to come to Tokyo and not take a walk across the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station, so this was our next stop after another short train journey. On sunny afternoons or clear evenings the surrounding area is packed with shoppers, students, young couples and commuters. When the lights turn red at this busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction. Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the intersection from all sides, like marbles spilling out of a box. We were told by our tour guide earlier this is Tokyo’s busiest train station with about 3.2 million people passing through it each business day. Being early afternoon it was still quite busy, but not as busy as during morning and afternoon peak hours. After buying a coffee at Starbucks we had hoped to enjoy watching this chaos from the second floor viewing area, however it was quite crowded and had to enjoy it from a lower vantage point. After a lap of the adjoining streets which houses many boutiques and disposable fashion retailers, it was down into the station again to visit the Tokyu Food Show which is basically a large food hall containing cooked, gourmet and fresh foods. With many things on offer including things such as grilled eel and octopus on a stick, I settled with a pack of 12 dumplings which I shared with Denise.

Now being mid afternoon, we decided to make one more stop before heading back to the hotel and meeting up with Scott, so we headed to Roppongi Hills. The Roppongi Hills complex offers a garden, cinema, loads of shops, cafés and restaurants, observation tower, and art museum, however we were mainly interested in checking out a giant spider sculpture called Maman by an artist Louise Bourgeois. After a couple of a photos we wandered downstairs for another recommendation I had found being the Pintokona sushi bar. Even though we were not hungry, we thought we might stop for small plate to say we have done it. It is known as kaiten style, so you simply help yourself to the artfully arranged dishes as they roll by on the conveyer belt, or use the picture menu to let the chef know what you want. Upon arrival there was nobody in there at all, so the conveyer belt was empty with the exception of signs indicating what you could have the chef whip up. With this seeming like a very unexciting way of doing it, and with none of the dishes on offer taking our fancy, we decided to give it a miss and head for home.

Back at the hotel room we found Scott had been out wandering the neighborhood and had visited the nearby Asakusa, a really old temple complex in heart of Tokyo. This is something I will also have to do over my next week in Tokyo. After a bit of a sit around the room and with the sun started to fall, we headed back out into the nearby streets in search of some dinner. Not knowing where is good or what we even wanted, the easiest way for someone to get us in is to simply make an invitation and this is exactly what happened (I think they were wanting some business given nobody else was in there). We ordered a few dishes from their poorly translated English version of the menu, and within minutes the first one was on the table. The meal was good, however seemed more of a chinese restaurant rather than a japanese one. Back at the hotel the rest of the evening was spent trying to understand japanese tv, including some of their wacky game shows. I think they look like heaps on fun and would love to give one a go, with the only hurdle at the moment not being able to speak Japanese.

Back to the city

Half way through our bag pack, we headed off for our last breakfast which was great as usual. Upon finishing breakfast it was back to finish the bags before heading to the lobby for our checkout. The one member of staff who speaks a little English and who had helped us with all of our queries throughout the week was present, and presented Denise with a postcard from herself wishing us well and thanking us for staying with them. This was a nice touch to the end of the stay, especially that it was personally from her and not the hotel. Denise asked her about last nights meal as to whether it was a special treat, to which she said yes, and Denise said she hoped we didn’t cause offense by not eating all the food on previous nights. It appeared however that she did not completely understand what Denise meant so the topic was let go. Denise did say to thank the chef however for all the meals and that they were ALL very “oishii”, the word for delicious/tasty we had previously learnt from the baker. After saying our final goodbyes, and then feeling bad again for the girls insisting on carrying and loading our heavy bags into the van, we were off to the other end of town to the bus station. After a short wait we were all aboard and heading back to Yamagata station. Rather than trying to communicate with the ticket office this time, I decided to give the machines a go and found them to be much easier given they had an English language option. With tickets in hand, and over an hour wait before our trains departure, Denise and I went for a wander through some shops nearby before meeting back with Scott and heading to the heated waiting rooms on the train platform. A hot drink machine (made to order rather than prepackaged) nearby was calling my name, and I was fascinated to discover some of the very appealing sounding drinks on offer. I ended up having a banana cocoa, with Denise trying a creme broulee. Both of them were very nice and I would not hesitate having another, with the fact they cost less than $2 Australian for a large cup an added bonus. With our wait soon over the train to Tokyo pulled into the station and we jumped aboard for our couple of hour journey into Tokyo. The bullet trains are still a fairly bumpy ride, but I guess smooth for the fact for the short time I was looking we were traveling at 274km/h. After 3 hours on the train I was glad when it pulled into Tokyo station. Even though there were quite a few people around, being a Sunday it will actually be quite relaxed compared to a what it will be like on a weekday (something to look forward to). We headed for the closest exit with a taxi rank and headed to the hotel. This was a better option than taking another train as the hotel was picking up the bill for 2 taxis. Upon arriving at the hotel and checking in, the first thing we noticed was the loud and rowdy westerners hanging around in the lobby. This is something we managed to avoid over the last week given the traditional nature of Zao. The next few hours was spent sitting around the room, having a beer and doing nothing. This could have normally been done in the bar, but even with its exorbitant prices, it is still closed of a Sunday. Given night was approaching, Denise and I decided we should wander out and find us something quick and simple for dinner. This was a little more difficult than initially thought, as wandering randomly through some back streets we found the places were closed, and upon eventually find a main street with quite a few open places we had a new problem that they did not do takeaway to take back to the hotel where Scott was. In the end it was either going to be McDonalds, Subway, or a Japanese burger chain called MOS Burger (although they can also now be found outside Japan). We decided to give MOS Burger a go, and it was pretty good including all the usual grease and goodness you get in a hamburger from a fast food restaurant. The rest of the night was pretty quiet; making use of the in room wifi and starting to think about how to plan our next few days.

Sun, skiing, and monsters

Given our skiing session yesterday was quite short, Denise and I had already decided that if the weather was good today we would try to make a full day of it. Luckily someone was listening and we awoke to fresh snow fallen overnight and blue skies. Filling up on a delicious breakfast as usual, we soon headed off on the day’s mission to accomplish several things:

1. Visit the yet unexplored areas of the ski resort
2. Have lunch at the summit
3. Ski down from the summit to the bottom, a 10km run, which meant I had no choice but to ski a steep and narrow intermediate level run before I could get onto my easier ones
4. Get a copy of the a accident report about Scott’s accident from the ski patrol
5. Visit the snow monsters after dark (more explanation below)

Riding 3/4 of the way up the mountain (the level at which we could cross sides) we started our decent into the other side of the resort. Although there were a few nice runs, we found the lifts that serviced them were laid out very inefficiently which meant at times you had to push along flat ground to move between them, or even worse take off your skis and have a small uphill walk. I had read this was a minor disadvantage to this resort because of the number of separate lift operators who get paid on a percentage of your ticket price based on the number of times you ride their lifts, therefore some lifts have just been put in wherever they fit just to maximize the number they have operating. It made for some good exploring (and exercise) though, and at least now I can say I did most of the resort. It also proved one side of the resort (our hotel side) was better than the other. After putting in a good few hours, Denise and I eventually made it up to the summit for some lunch, and I also figured why not make the most of it and wash it down with a beer. By this time the weather had also changed with the low clouds rolling in which which meant visibility had started to become an issue. I couldn’t leave Zao without having done the full run top to bottom (10km), so we geared up and headed on out. The intermediate run leading down from the summit was quite steep and narrow, so I took it quite easy. The other issue is the snowboarders who think its ok to sit and chat in the middle of the slopes; you are there to snowboard people so get up and go. This has actually been an issue several times this week, and was actually worse later today as more people arrived for the weekend. Upon reaching the bottom we decided it was time for a break so we would try acquiring a copy of Scott’s accident report. We had no idea where we needed to go looking for this, or even how to ask for it when we did find someone, so luckily one of the girls at the hotel had translated our simple request on paper from English to Japanese. First we headed in search of the town clinic thinking this is where the records might go, however this was incorrect. Not knowing where else to try, we decided to drop in on our baker friend for some help, but also for some bread and a final goodbye. Between a bit of pondering and discussions with another 2 people in his bakery, he advised us to try the nearest ski patrol base to the accident and pointed them out on the map. With fresh bread in tow, including what we think must have been a few freebies (hard to know when nothing has visible pricing) we dropped back in on Scott with his lunch then headed off in search of the ski patrol office. After arriving at the office and producing the bit of paper, they were still quite a bit confused as to what we were wanting. Luckily with both of the ski patrol members being tech savvy like me it was soon battle of the phones as we translated words and sentences between English and Japanese, sometimes with quite funny results. Denise thought this looked quite funny, however in the end it got the job done and it was organised to fax a copy of it to the hotel that evening. With this mission accomplished it was back to the slopes to make the most of our little remaining time before the lifts would begin being shut down. The sun quickly disappeared and the temperature dropped, so with one last final run it was time to return the equipment and call it a day. Upon arriving back at the hotel we were queried as to what time we would like dinner (as was the process for all other nights), however as Denise and I were planning to visit the snow monsters tonight we decided we would sort out our own and politely declined. After arriving back at the room the phone rung, with another query about dinner to which we tried to explain our reason for declining, however they were persisting and mentioned what we believed was the word steak. To try and explain our situation, Denise and I headed back down to reception and managed to let them know our plans. They were still quite persistent however, and made an arrangement for us to come to dinner at 8pm, even though the last sitting was at 7:30pm. We did not want to offend, so accepted their offer and quickly got ready to head up the mountain to visit the snow monsters. Snow monsters, or Juhyo in Japanese, are basically trees that are slowly covered in snow and shaped by the wind until they become a large snow like sculpture. On specific nights they run the gondolas to the top and illuminate them with coloured lights. It was quite cold up there to be walking around at night, with the mercury sitting at -8.5 degrees. The cloud was also quite heavy, which meant visibility from the gondola was near zero. We got off at the top and walked around a small roped off area and took a few photos, however based on photos on the Internet and promotional posters we were expecting a lot more. We both agreed however we would have been disappointed if we did not do it. After arriving back at the hotel we just had enough time for a quick shower, before wandering down for dinner to see what all the persistence was about. The first giveaway that something was different was an empty table compared to our tables previously which already had food laid out, and cutlery in addition to chopsticks. After ordering drinks a large bowl of salad for each of us was brought out, and not much longer after that a sizzle plate was brought out laid with a large steak cut into strips. The meat was beautiful, tender, slow medium cooked, and marinated in what tasted like a ginger and soy sauce. We were a little concerned however that we may have made offense on previous nights sending food back that we were not quite keen on and so had only eaten a little of it, as we had read Japanese culture can dictate eating everything to the last grain of rice, and this was the reason for this special meal different from everyone else. The desert was also different to previous nights, with ice cream in a strawberry sauce. We were unsure of how much to make a big deal of it, as if it were a replacement for a standard Japanese meal as they thought we were not being satisfied then they would be wrong as we have enjoyed every meal, or if it was just a special treat then thanking them more than previous nights would suggest we prefer this. In this difficult situation, we simply thanked and greeted the staff as usual and headed back to our room. The dinner experiences have been quite interesting in both the food and the service. Any time a member of staff comes to your table, before they depart they will bow. Walking around the restaurant and the staff will bow to you. Departing of an evening they will all stop what they are doing, face you and bow as you walk past. On most occasions one of them will have also already gone out the front, called the elevator and is holding it for you before giving one last bow as the doors close. What we also found amusing that it was a special treatment to us, as most of the other Japanese guests were not given the same treatment.

Road trip (to hospital)

With Scott’s knee puffed up like a balloon, it was decided that today we should seek some further medical attention (despite the clear skies outside). Denise and I had our usual breakfast, and then went to have a chat to one of the hotel employees who has very basic english to formulate a plan of attack. Although Zao does have its own clinic, this is really for very minor things or a first point of call for major things, so heading off the mountain to Yamagata was the proposed course of action. After getting ourselves organised a taxi was called and we headed off for what we thought was going to be a difficult adventure. Luckily the hotel had already called the hospital and let them know we were coming which had set in motion a very easy introduction to the Japanese medical system. Upon pulling up at the front door of the hospital the taxi driver ran into the hospital and returned with a wheelchair for Scott. Once entering the hospital and seeing what resembled a bank or something similar with lots of numbered counters with a ticket system, we simply showed the receptionist/door greeter the name of the doctor expecting us we were soon greeted by an administration employee with quite good English who got everything moving. After filling out the usual paperwork we were off to the orthopedic section, and after a short wait in the waiting room which also gave Denise a chance to have a chat with the travel insurance company, Scott was in with the doctor who pre-diagnosed it as ligament damage but was to be confirmed by an x-ray, and a recommendation of an MRI when he returned to Australia. We rolled off down the hallways following the red line on the floor (one of many coloured lines leading to different departments of the hospital) to arrive at the x-ray department, where after only about a 2 minute wait he was in for an x-ray, and in about the same time it was done and we were back off to the orthopedic department where after only another short wait he was back with the doctor who confirmed he had in fact fractured his knee. After sending him next door to be fitted with a knee brace, then prescribing some drugs, we were off back down the hall to pick them up and ended up back in the first room with all the counters to pay the bill which was very reasonable given you have to pay 100% of the costs and reclaim it later. Right throughout the whole process the administration employee was either with us or within visible distance providing exceptional customer service. After hailing a taxi for us and waving goodbye, we were on our way back to Zao. The whole process including travel was only just over 3 hours, a time in Australia which is almost unheard of. After arriving back at the hotel mid afternoon and having a bit of a chill out in the lobby Denise and I decided to get in at least an hour of skiing so geared up and hit the slopes. If was the quietest we have seen it, then again it was getting later in the day and the weather was completely different to this morning. After doing 2 runs, we decided to call it quits already given the quickly falling temperatures and the quality of the snow (chopped up and icy). Instead Denise and I decided to brave the public bath back at the hotel. I say brave because the idea of me nuding up and jumping in a big bath (basically a swimming pool) with lots of other men (men and women separate) sounded a bit daunting, however I knew if I went home without trying I would regret it. After heading on in and putting everything (and I mean everything) in a basket on the shelves, I headed on in. The first thing I noticed was the amount of steam meant even if there were other people in there (which I don’t believe there were), you almost need to be right next to them to see them. This might have been a good thing given Denise kept telling me I might give them a scare that a yeti or snow monster was coming in. This made things a bit more comforting, but first things first, you cannot get in being dirty, and even whether you think you are clean you still need to go and wash first. Lining the side wall was rows of small stools, each with soap dispensers and a detachable shower head. After having a bit of a scrub to satisfy anyone that might in fact be watching me, I headed on in. Sitting in one of the deeper seats at the end, the water was quite warm but no hotter than me having a hot shower at home. Denise and Scott say this is quite cold compared to some whether you have to ease yourself in, and even then you feel like you are in boiling water. As I sat there a few more people started coming in which was unsurprising given late afternoon into the evening was when we seen most people wandering the halls on their way down. After 15 minutes my body temperature had risen and started to get a bit uncomfortable, so decided I had succeeded in my mission and called it quits. The rest of the evening was quite laid back sitting around in the lobby, with dinner in between. Dinner tonight was quite similiar to last night, boiled meat (supposedly beef this time) with veggies, plus another range of side dishes. The dinners have been good but are starting to get a bit tiring, so I am looking forward to getting back to Tokyo just to have a burger, or even just a plate of dumplings as to not break my Japanese meal streak.

Thrills and spills

Once again today started like all the others, cloud, snow and a good breakfast. Denise had some fun at breakfast saying good morning to a little Japanese boy who suddenly became quite shy, even with his mum & dad encouraging him to say good morning back to her. She then said good morning in Japanese and he thought it was quite funny. As we arrived and ventured up two chair lifts we were amazed to see how many school kids had arrived (approx 100) and how quickly the ski school had them organised and at the lifts by 9:00am with their instructors. Very efficient, some of our ski schools could learn from them! Anyway we continued warming up on our familiar runs, then Denise & Scott went one way and I went the other with a plan to catch each other at the bottom throughout the morning. I ended up meeting Denise at about 12:00pm, but no Scott. Apparently he caught the courtesy bus (medic van) back to the motel after coming a gutser on a red run and injuring his left knee. Denise filled me in with all the detail over our cafe lattes. Apparently Scott wanted to see what the run was like in comparison to yesterday and it turned out some of the soft patches were now a bit harder and caught his ski, twisting his leg one way and the ski the other with the ski not popping off the boot. Unfortunately Denise didn’t get it on video but did manage to get footage of him laying on the slope (although only a black dot in the distance) and being brought down on the stretcher (see photos below for screenshots). Denise said it was very interesting trying to communicate with the office at the base of the slope as she pointed to the symbols on the ski map to indicate she needed medical and ski patrol and which slope Scott was lying at the bottom of. He is OK, probably a bit of muscle or ligament damage to the knee, a bit of swelling, and certainly a bruised ego. At least he is OK and no broken bones! Denise and I ended up going back up the slopes and mucked around in some deep powder I found earlier which got the better of Denise as she stacked it on her first attempt to go through it. It caught her by surprise and she was wearing the helmet cam at the time, so at least we have some funny footage. We had another attempt and made it right through without stopping or falling. Once we finished that challenge we continued around the slopes until the snow started falling heavier and the temperature dropped causing our faces and fingers to freeze. At that stage we decided we had had enough and called it quits for the day. We put our gear back at the rental shop and returned to the motel to check on Scott, collect his skis, and also take them back to the rental shop. We then continued up the street for some souvenir shopping and visiting the bakery for hot chocolate and pizza. On the way Denise slipped on the ice in the street and ended up on her backside. The bakery was busy today with about 12 people coming through whilst we were there. This is the first time we have seen anyone else in there. One group was a number of high school kids who had been participating in racing with one guy (who had a bit of limited English) coming second in the ski races, so we congratulated him and Denise asked if they learnt English at school. One of the boys said “no” and they all laughed and started talking Japanese so we were none the wiser about their schooling. Another young trio came through and asked where we were from and were quite surprised at the length of time we were spending in Zao skiing and that we were also visiting Tokyo. They were from outside of Tokyo and were also skiing for a few days and complaining about sore legs like us. The pizza was interesting, especially given its price. We were advised pizzas were basic, and they were not lying with it being a tomato base and cheese, then sprinkled with lettuce as it was served. Dinner was another interesting mission tonight, we had some sort of meat (we are not sure what) to boil with veggies, then dipped in wasabi and a sauce. As usual there were also many other courses including a plate of raw fish slices which was also interesting. We try to eat as much as we can as to not offend with large amounts of food left over, but given not everything is to our taste there is always something left when we leave.

The best day yet

Today started like every other, a good hearty breakfast and overcast skies. We didn’t have much fresh snow last night so conditions today were much different to yesterday. Snow had settled a bit with not as much loose powder which made it a bit easier to control my skis. I still consider myself a beginner and continued to improve throughout the day when I went off by myself to practice my techniques. I tried out a few new slopes and continued the day on my favourites. Scott and Denise made it to the summit today and skied the 10 km run to the bottom. They said their thighs were burning after that run mainly because they had already skied for most of the day on a lot of other runs. The weather was variable today, one minute it was fine so we would head further up the mountain, then suddenly conditions would change again and the cloud would come across making visibility quite poor. At least the blizzard type conditions stayed away. I managed to make it to the second highest area today and skied all the way down with a few spectacular falls along the way, and feeling pretty buggered by the end of the run. We finished skiing at about 3:30pm, so we put in a pretty good effort today considering we were on the slopes as the lifts were starting up at 9:00am. When we finished we wandered up the street to our bakery friend for some hot chocolate and chai tea. He continued to teach us some more Japanese and we showed a photo of something we ate last night which we weren’t sure about. After typing it into his translator, it turned out to be a type of egg plant. We thought it may have been something a bit more sinister! Once again we sampled some of his bread and this time we had a spinach and cheese bread and one with chocolate and walnuts. He very obligingly warmed them up for us in his wood fire oven which made them extra “oishii” (delicious). We then returned to our room and prepped for dinner, wondering what interesting bits and pieces we will have tonight. Turned out to be beef and veggies boiled in a soup, plus another handful of courses including fish omelette. Always something different, so not sick of it yet.

We have sunshine (for a little while anyway)!

After a gloomy start to the morning and preparing ourselves for another cold snowy day, we were pleasantly surprised to find the weather much clearer after breakfast. Today we had to walk along the back path of the motel due to the snow ploughs clearing the massive dump of snow from the front roadway. Once we arrived at the slopes we were happy to see lots of fresh powder cover and about ten other people. It was a great start to the day, skiing through the fresh cover which was like skiing in talcum powder. I had a few stacks along the way as I tried to negotiate the deeper snow to turn across the slopes. You know it’s a good stack when you end up about 20 metres down the slope past your skis. With the snow so powdery, it also takes a while for it to fall back to the ground so I can see which way I am facing. Most of the time our skis were disappearing under the snow. Because the weather was more favorable today we explored some of the longer slopes in other parts of the resort which were a bit more challenging for me. Denise managed to get some footage on the helmet cam to to prove I can actually ski and crash! The weather remained clear and mild until about 2:00pm when it began snowing quite heavily and falling horizontally behind us on the chair lifts. My hands were frozen so I had to call it quits, so Denise and I went to put our skis away for the day while Scott continued skiing and exploring some of the red runs. Once we put our gear away and walked outside, the weather had changed dramatically and we now had blue skies and sunshine. We were tempted to put our gear on again and go for some more runs but a hot drink and snow angels were calling us. In Japan the vending machines have quite a few hot drinks served from cans stocked in their vending machines including tea, coffee and soup, however today I found a vending machine that stocked hot chocolate (cocoa). Most people say these drinks are horrible, however this one was very nice and warm to hold between the hands. Denise and I then decided to muck around and have some fun in the snow. Denise prepped herself like a stunt person, putting on her protective clothing and readying herself for a backwards flop to make a snow angel. The stunt was a great success as she flapped her arms and legs to form an angelic impression in the snow apart from where her backside landed. This started a bit of a trend with a young Japanese boy following suit. Denise’s was much more impressive! Having made a few more angels it was time to attempt some front body prints in the snow to see if we could improve our techniques. Denise only tried while fully protected this time to see how well face prints would work with goggles and a helmet. Unfortunately we discovered that face prints work best only when you plant your bare face. We had lots of laughs and loads of fun anyway. One day we may actually grow up! After amusing ourselves (and probably a few onlookers) we popped back into the rental shop & left a note for Scott to let him know we had taken the gondola up to the top to take some happy snaps because the weather was clear and sunny. The journey up was great because we weren’t packed in like sardines and we could take some pics on the way. When we reached the top it was -10 degrees and had a bitterly cold wind blowing outside which meant Denise couldn’t stay out too long because she didn’t have anything around her face. I on the other hand had my neck scarf pulled up to cover all exposed pieces of skin on my face and I braved the elements to take some more happy snaps. Once we finished we headed back down on the gondola, taking some more great shots along the way. By the time we reached the bottom it was pretty fresh, so we checked to see if Scott was around before heading back to the motel, only to find him snug in the motel lobby with his beer and chips! Once we warmed up and had a break for a while we checked out some of our photos then went to dinner. Tonight we had another huge Japanese feast of seafood which we cooked on our individual hot plates. We were pretty unsure about what we were eating most of the time and we had some very pleasant flavours and some not so pleasant. All in all it was another delicious meal and we enjoyed the opportunity to sample some more traditional Japanese cuisine. Looking forward to another great day tomorrow, hopefully the weather will be fine and sunny so we can ski some more areas.

Let’s try skiing again

An early start to the day and another delicious breakfast was provided, similar to yesterday’s. We started our trek up the road to hit the slopes at 8:30am, this time I was armed with my second pair of goggles. We were some of the early birds to get the chairlift and it had been snowing all night and continued to have a light flurry which made a great cover and smooth run for our first couple of runs. We decided to stay on the lower slopes today for better visibility which proved to be good decision considering it snowed constantly all day. This was the first time I had skied in powder snow which was a little different to what I am used too, mainly because I would have seen a rise in the snow (which was primarily ice) and gone over it at speed, probably ending up in the air and then on my ass, however now the skis just plough straight through it. Although my goggles were better, they still were not without their issues as when they started getting a little moist with no air flowing through inside they kept fogging up . Scott was kind enough to swap his with me which seemed OK, and we found they were mainly fogging due to the moisture inside. I’ll try again tomorrow! We skied until early afternoon doing the same couple of lower slopes until everyone was starting to freeze and our legs were sore. Given we still had a few hours left in the day, we dumped our ski gear at the rental shop and jumped on the gondola and headed right to the top of the mountain so I could get some photos of the snow monsters which are basically the snow covered trees. We did wander outside, however it was only for a few brief minutes because the temperature was at -8 degrees and the wind/snow at blizzard conditions. This was enough to allow me to get my photos. The snow monsters are still forming, but by February it is the best time to view them as the snow is at its thickest. The restaurant at the top made for a nice escape from the cold along with hot cocoa and hot chips. After heading back down to the hotel some hot showers were due, followed by round 2 with the massage chair. I don’t think I will ever know what the selections are on the Japanese menu, but I figure if I try a different setting every day I will find a favourite. After hoping for a hot dinner tonight, we were presented with some soups and stews which hit the spot just right. As per previous nights we also had a handful of other courses (11 courses tonight to be exact) with us not knowing what quite a few of them were, but that aside still going down pretty well anyway (see photos).

Exploring Zao Onsen

After hanging out in the hotel for a little while following my failed first skiing attempt, I headed off for a walk through the town looking for any souvenirs. I didn’t find much, but then didn’t expect to given its not a foreign tourist town. I ended up running into Denise and Scott (my aunt and uncle who I came with on the trip) who were just coming back in from the slopes. After ditching their gear back at the hotel we headed off for another wander through the town and ended up in the bakery again for some pastries and hot drinks. With nobody else in there (don’t think it gets very busy), and even though he has limited English, you can still get through an interesting question/answer conversation with a little bit of patience from both sides. The next stop further in the town required a climb up the hill to the local shrine. It was not until about half way up we decided it probably wasn’t such a good idea given the stairs resembled a slippery slide covered in snow. Luckily there was a hand rail which we could use at times to basically drag ourselves. At the top we found some deep and untouched snow which made for some good snow angels and yeti/bigfoot/abominable snow man footprints as a gift to the locals (see photos), but the question now was how to get back down. Rather than attempt the same path we followed the road and found ourselves in another part of the town which we had not yet explored or even knew existed. Following the roads out eventually led us back down to the bottom of the hill and back to the hotel, a much easier route than the way up. Denise and I decided to check out the massage chairs before dinner which proved a challenge given the LCD screen remote has all its menus in Japanese. A few presses of this button and a few presses of that button made the chair spring to life which then resulted in a few moans and groans when the chair decided to punch you in the back. This just means we will have to use it a few more times to master the controls. Dinner tonight proved as interesting as the night before, another cook it yourself style Japanese feast, however this time the main dish was to be boiled. The other courses also differed from last night, again with some very interesting food items with everyone guessing as to what they might be (I think it could be safer not to know). After dinner Denise and I decided to take a night walk through the town and found it very deserted with only the occasional person seen and all the shops and restaurants closed. I guess people are more sensible than to go out at night in sub zero temperatures. It did prove for a few childish dares and photos though with what we have termed “face planting”. See the photos and you will know what I mean. Hopefully this will start the next craze of people doing stupid things.

First day of skiing

I wasn’t sure what to expect for our first Japanese breakfast this morning given the Japanese breakfast option on the plane was fish. Luckily the Japanese buffet style breakfast had a bit of all to offer even though some of the things we know for breakfast were still a little different. After a big meal it was off to hit the slopes for the first time, but first we had to organise some ski’s, poles and lift tickets. Luckily it was a bit easier than our enquires the day before as the attendant had some basic english skills. Once that was sorted, it was off to check out the mountain. We caught the gondola up to the mid station, and decided to play on some of the runs around this area making use of the smaller chair lifts. The first thing we noticed was the terrible visibility through the falling snow, fog and cloud, and not knowing the mountain or being able to read the Japanese signage made it quite scary not knowing whether that next right turn is going to put you on one of their steepest black runs which would likely put me (as a beginner) in the hospital (some of these runs can be seen in photos). After stopping mid slope to consult the map, which basically turned out to be useless still when you can’t see where your going and you don’t know where you are, I ended up resorting to ask a passing Japanese guy who had no idea what I was trying to say. In the end pointing down the slope with the word “easy” got my question across and resulted in a reassuring “yes”. Proceeded slowly and cautiously, we eventually found ourselves back at the chairlift. Not being game enough to try anywhere else, we simply did the same loop a few times. As time went by, visibility decreased even more, however it was not until I decided to take my goggles off for a minute that I found my goggles were half of my problem. The lenses were lightly fogged, and the chrome tint on them was blocking quite a lot of light. After persisting with them I got to the point that I could not see any more than 10 metres in front of me, and it was not possible to ski without them through the sideways falling snow, so I decided to call it quits and go back to find my spare goggles (with different lens) to give them a go. I caught the gondola back down and headed back into the ski shop to leave my gear there while I returned to the hotel (something which the guy this morning had said we could do). Well the problem now was that he wasn’t there any more, and the guys in the shop had no idea what I was trying to achieve. Between a lot of head shaking and continually writing 8:45pm on a piece of paper which was the time at which the gear is due back if it were rented for one day, another customer finally decided to help me with his extremely limited english. It took quite an effort to communicate, and even then we still only got to the point where they were going to let me leave the gear there but were not expecting me back until the next day. Given the difficulty in getting to this point and not going to be able to get back to meet Denise and Scott at our predetermined time, I decided it was now time to call it quits for the day and start fresh again tomorrow.