March 28, 2015
It’s been a while since the Olympic Winter Games in Nagano in 1998 and it seems that ever since then no major investments were made into the skiing infrastructure of the venues like e.g. Hakuba. Nevertheless it is a great skiing resort with wonderful powder snow, a great variation of slopes and a half-way decent gastronomy on the slopes. So once you get used to the lift that first hits you in the calves and makes you bounce into the seat to hit your spine on the low hard plastic back rest, you can enjoy a great mountain scenery. Most lifts do not have a safety bar and none of them have a foot rest. For some of the rides which took about 15 minutes, this was quite a tiresome experience as you felt your legs getting longer with every meter of ascent.
Contrary to Gala, which is a resort only 1h train ride away from Tokyo, Hakuba attracts a lot of good and very good skiers and snow boarders. Even though some of the skiers made it down the slopes in high speed, you felt less at risk to get run over than for example in Austria. As we are in Japan, people are very mindful and take care not to harm each other. This behaviour somehow seems to rub off on the tourists which makes life on the slopes quite safe.
We would not be in Japan if there would not be some nice little amenities I haven’t seen elsewhere so far. Some of the restaurants on the slopes offer slippers to wear during your lunch or coffee break. Most people use them which makes the whole restaurant appear cleaner, everybody walks in a normal way without difficulties to balance the trays and it definitely is a nice break for feet and legs to get out of the skiing boots for some time.
Another very positive fact is that there is no music playing in those restaurants. No nerve wracking Alpenschlagerdudel – sorry I have no English expression at hand.
Something we missed were outdoor sitting areas or terraces. You just cannot sit outside. You have to take your lunch in a warm and – considering the food offer – quite smelly place. It is known that the Japanese do not like to expose themselves to the sun. I have even seen women skiing with a very light cotton face mask to protect them from the sun. As everywhere else in the mountains, the sun on the slopes is very aggressive, plus the fact that we are closer to the equator. So Mark and I (with SPF 50) had our coffee in front of the Australian run ski school at the end of the slopes, the only place that had some tables outside.
What we saw travelling across Japan with the Shinkansen underlined the fact that Japanese people do not like to be outside the same way westerners do. Houses in general have no outside sitting area or terrace, no BBQs etc. Balconies only serve to dry laundry. This is very different to the part of town where we are living in – full of gaijins of course – who have terraces with garden furniture and try to make best use of the outdoor space they have.
Also none of the Alpine “Gemütlichkeit” is to be found in Japanese skiing resorts. The towns and their architecture are as nondescript as elsewhere in Japan with just a few exceptions. The Austrian who introduced skiing to Japan in the last century had a lasting impact on the vocabulary. The slopes are called “Gelande”, the poles “Stock” and so on. And of course there was an “Alpen Lift”! But skiing and après ski culture did not develop the same way.
I am not sure if I already referred to the fact that Japanese can and do sleep whenever and wherever they feel like it – in public. Mostly seen on trains, but also in waiting areas or in restaurants on ski slopes. It is apparently quite usual to take a nap after lunch with your head on the table – this habit has no gender or age limit.
Another noticeable fact was the small luggage the Japanese guests traveled with. The few non-Japanese tourists – including us – arrived with large suitcases. In addition to all our ski clothes we had also packed clothes to wear in the evening for dinner. Absolutely unnecessary in our hotel which provided Yukatas (kind of a bathrobe just prettier). After a day of skiing most guests returned to the hotel between 4 and 5:30, changed into the Yukata and went to the Onsen (hot spring bath – which is the best prevention of muscle ache). After the Onsen they went to the restaurant which opened at 6pm – in their Yukatas and the hotel slippers of course. So we all looked very much alike. I assume that there was some Après Ski fun in the city somewhere, but it was not obvious. Seeing how packed our hotel was every evening I do not think that a lot of the Japanese guests enjoyed any Après Ski fun.
The above mentioned Australian run ski school became our favourite place to hang out especially after they proofed themselves valuable in retrieving our daughter. Lilo got lost on the slopes on our first day. Actually on the first descent we made after going up with the gondola. The boys had a bit of a difficult start in the slush snow on this first very hot day of our skiing vacation. So we were very slow and half way down the slopes Lilo met a father with is two children about Lilo’s age and she just went down the hill with them. When we realised that she was not waiting at the next stop, it was already too late. We searched for her a the possible end points of the slope we took, but could not find her. As she had forgotten her phone at the hotel, we were unable to reach her. And we were not sure she would remember the name of the hotel (which she did). I was still quite calm when I turned to one of the teachers of the ski school who just finished off a lesson. I asked her if she might help me and where I could turn to in order to get help to find my missing daughter. Within five minutes she had a search team set up. As all ski instructors had just finished their lessons, about 12 to 15 people set out to look for Lilo, the snow patrol was informed as well as all lift personnel. Loudspeaker announcements were made so people would help a lonely child to find her parents – a call to action necessary in the Japanese society where people tend to ignore the mishap of others. But our daughter was no lonely child crying out for her parents. She was having fun on the slopes confidently searching for us with this father and his kids. She was at no point worried she wouldn’t find us. And she knew which hotel she needed to go to. She happily followed the ski instructor who found her and took her back to us. As of the following day we had all three signed up for the ski school for the full day (including lunch). Thus all of us enjoyed the ski holidays a lot!
Only in Japan would the driver of a long distance bus get out of the bus to check if a passenger was in the little waiting hut – asleep of course (see above) and thus risking to miss the bus.