Tag Archives: Japan

The Best Part of Travel

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I love to travel. New sights, exotic foods, interesting conversations with strangers all stretch me a little.

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Niseko with Mt. Yotei in the background

Travel takes me out of my comfort zone, turns me upside down and gives me a shake until quarters (or perhaps yen coins) drop from my pockets.

I’m in Niseko on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in search of new experiences, legendary powder and the famous japanese powder trees. Excellent sushi, apres ski onsens (the japanese version of hot tubbing) and a lively little ski town doesn’t hurt either. We’ve been here for a week–hence the lack of new blog posts the past few days–and return today. Or tomorrow rather. We leave tomorrow and get back today. Or something like that. All I know is that we leave Sapporo at 2pm on Tuesday and arrive in Seattle at 8am the same day. It’s like a time machine. I’ve been playing Back to the Future in my head like an earworm, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!”

Yesterday we skied at a tiny area with one lift used by the military for training. It is surrounded by easy access backcountry peaks carved against the backdrop of the Sea of Japan. After a short skin above the lift, we carved down a protected face of fresh snow, the stellar crystals glinting in the sunlight layering itself across the slope like curtains of light.

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Hot spring at the base of Chisenupuri

Lap after lap we found untracked turns, until we skied down to the onsen and lowered ourselves into the steamy, sulfurous water. Our Japanese friend Kenji claims the sulfur warms you to your bones and soothes sore muscles. He might be right about that.

Sometimes, though, the best part of travel is returning home. Seeing new places can offer fresh perspective, it can scrub away the jaded edges that form around familiar viewpoints. Maybe flying 4,000 miles to ski powder makes you that much happier to know its piling up at home, filling in the jibbed-out lines and

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Chisenupuri with the Sea of Japan behind

resetting itself for your return. I appreciate more now the familiarity of skiing at home, knowing to ski Appliances when the wind blows from the south, how the sun and temperature affect particular lines, that the trees will protect the snow in Paradise when Exterminator, with a similar aspect, is burned to coral. That Powder Bowl stays dry and chalky even in the midst of record breaking inversion. That you can almost always find untracked lines beyond Boxcar.

I return now to yesterday, to the snow storm that’s blowing in Monday evening, even though its Tuesday morning here in Niseko. The sun is out here and it looks like a leftover kind of day. But yesterday it’s snowing at home.

Now all I need to do is channel some lighting into that flux capacitator and just maybe I can bring some of this japowder home with me.

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Should You Keep Your Joy to Yourself?

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This is the moment to feel joy

As I stood at my locker the other day after skiing, a fellow ski patroller said to me, “So I hear you’ve been skiing powder?” He paused while I nodded. Before I could continue he said, “I don’t want to hear about it.”

I smiled and nodded. “Okay.” I turned back towards my locker, switched off my avalanche beacon and stored it next to my radio.

“I mean,” he said. “I know where you’ve been.”

I shifted around. “I thought you didn’t want to hear about it.”

He smiled and admitted that he kind of did want to know about skiing in Japan, and had heard that I’d recently been to Big Sky.

“I drove up to Cypress yesterday for a book signing and got back at midnight,” I told him, unclipping my helmet. “I didn’t even bring my skis.” I hung my head a little hoping to invoke a little pity. “I had to drink one of those 5 Hour Energy things I picked up at a gas station just to stay awake.”

Life is fleeting

“But you were in Japan.” He said flatly.

“Yes”

“And?” He smirked. It was killing him.

“And it was awesome.”

“I thought so.” Satisfied, he turned away.

Hiding your joy is funny business. Sometimes it seems the right thing to do. Whenever I tell another patroller about a recent trip, I emphasize the travel time and the pain-in-the-neck parts of it. I remind them that John and I actually flew for two days in order to ski for two days in Japan. Most people wouldn’t do that. It’s not all face shots and glory, I say.

But it was awesome? They want to know. And I tell them, yes, it was awesome. Some people don’t want the details; they just want to keep the flame burning on their own desire.

People wonder if writing a book is that way. I’m hesitant to say that yes, sharing my story is incredibly validating. I rarely mention that becoming an author has always been on my list of best-case-scenarios. That it is something I’ve dreamed about, imagining my book out there in the world. Instead, I tell them that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s hard to keep putting yourself out there (which is true), waving your book in the air like an idiot, hoping someone will buy a copy.

I tell people that it’s a heck of a lot easier to sell lift tickets than books. People feel guilty about books they don’t read. To buy a book and let it sit unread on the shelf brings some people great angst. I half joke and tell them they don’t have to read it, they just have to buy it. I talk about remainders until I notice their eyes glass over.

Yesterday I skied powder at Crystal. It was a surprising day–one where the “Real Feel”™ of the 3 inches of reported new snow was more like 10 inches. I hiked the King and found untouched snow in Silver Basin. After my first turn in, I realized I wasn’t smiling. I was thinking about how much time I had before I needed to be somewhere else.

I stopped.

Someone was skiing the chute to my left, and I caught glimpses of his blue jacket and silver helmet. The sun poked through the clouds and glistened on the trees to my right. I could hear only the wind and the soft beating of my heart. My blood softened a little, and I let myself melt a little into my surroundings.

I pushed on. This time I smiled big, letting the cold air freeze my teeth. I made wide arcs across the chute, certain the rocky ribs were covered in snow, and picked up speed. At the bottom another skier waited in the trees and I swooped past him, smiling and breathing loudly, taking large gulps of the snowy air.

As I skated out the long cat track, I kept on smiling. I noticed the way my legs pushed and my triceps worked and took joy in the movement of my body. I reminded myself that someday I would no longer be able to do this. Our best moments, like all moments, are temporary.

It’s no good trying to hide your joy. Life changes in an instant. This moment right here might be your last chance for joy. I say revel in it.

What do you say?

Where the Snow Lives: Niseko Japan

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Day 0.5

Niseko is where the snow lives.

When we arrived in the middle of the night on Monday, it was snowing hard. The banks along the street outside The Hooting Owl Lodge reached nearly to the power lines. The windows in our room were encased in snow. The next morning, it was still snowing. Several inches had accumulated in our footprints from the night before.

In the morning, Kenji, one of the caretakers at the lodge, asked me how long we were staying.

“We leave Friday,” I said.

He blinked. “Then where do you go?”

“Back to Seattle,” I smiled and craned my neck out the window to watch it snow as I sipped my coffee.

I knew Kenji was struggling. Japanese people are extremely polite (not to mention punctual, honest and in use of the best adjectives–happy! cute! skiing! fun times!). He probably didn’t want to offend me with a declaration of how crazy he thought it was to travel two whole days for two days of skiing.

But it wasn’t crazy; it was awesome.

Day 1

Japanese Powder Trees

With wind closing the upper mountain, we explored the “Japanese powder trees” of Grand Hirafu, gliding through the most forgiving tree skiing I’ve ever encountered. Cue the videographer; this skiing was just as good as what you see in the movies. No. It was better.

After a morning of braiding lines through the trees, we found a noodle house and ate the best ramen miso soup I’ve ever eaten. Prior to this trip, ramen was the domain of college students, made from hot water, dehydrated vegetables and foil packets. Not anymore

At the end of the day, I asked Kenji’s wife, Jen, if we should check out one of the local onsens. She just smiled and nodded. A visit to an onsen, a Japanese hot springs, is a must. You can hardly cross the street in Niseko without stumbling across an onsen, the closest of which, the Green Leaf Onsen, just so happened to be the best.  Regardless of culture, soaking tired muscles in hot water is a universal need.

That night Jen directed us to a small seafood restaurant that turned out to have “horse” on the menu. No matter. We weren’t there for the meat. Instead, we ate fresh sushi and more noodle soup and smiled and nodded to the waitress. It’s a good thing she understood hand signals and pointing.

Day 2

We woke to 20cm of snow as light and windless as down. Kenji dropped us off at the Niseko Gondola, and by look of the powder-drenched few who’d gotten the first cabin already returning to the non-existent queue, we knew today would be “the day”.

The sign says it all

We arrived at the top of the gondy in time for the single Wonderland Chair. We skied a run from the top of the volcano which I’m pretty sure was called “Snorkel” because you needed one in order to breathe. It was that deep. After lapping a few there, we headed toward Niseko’s Best Powder. In Japan, they aren’t afraid to advertise their best snow. We sessioned the trees to the right of the “Avalanche controlled area” and smiled through the snow in our teeth.

The day after any upper mountain is closed is almost always special, and Day 2 of our trip, the last day of our trip, was no different. In fact, it rated up there in one of the best days of skiing I’ve ever had. The powder was light, the trees were thoughtfully placed and the sun came out just long enough for each run.

It was like a dream.

Dreamy

On the gondola ride, each member of our group was sure they’d found the best snow, comparing and one-upping one another with reports of the consistency of snow, quality of light and depth of the face shots each received. We were all sure we’d found the best snow on the mountain, certain the others had missed out on “the goods”.

The ski day ended at the onsen, where we peeled our ski boots off and soaked our bodies in the outdoor hot springs. That night we ate at Kenji’s favorite sushi restaurant, Hana Yoshi, far off the beaten tourist track.

Once again, the use of hand signals and pointing did wonders for our ordering skills. We watched the sushi chef in awe. He was a true master

Day 3

We woke at 3am to start our return journey. Glancing at the forecast for Crystal Mountain this morning, I realized we might be bringing some of the snow back with us. If you’ve ever wondered if you should just up and go to Japan–or anywhere else for that matter–to check out the skiing, just do it.

You never know. You might just ski the best run of your life.

Spontaneity Rules

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My childhood desk was a work of art. It didn’t just sit in the corner of my room, accumulating piles of homework and stray scrunchies–it did that of course–but it also was a sort of friendship map. It was covered in colorful text. It included the phone numbers of everyone I ever knew, my oldest and dearest friend’s numbers relined and doodled upon lovingly. There was also the names of crushes outlined in painstakingly scrawled hearts, and quotations by my favorite authors. Hearts and mountains, raindrops and waves filled the spaces between the numbers. Some words and numbers were forgotten under the layers, others were new. But one line dominated the canvas. Across the top of my desk was written in big blue letters, “Spontaneity Rules.”

I was weird in High School. Not trench-coat wearing weird, more pseudo-intellectual weird (I pictured myself someday with Joan Baez hair and a book or two to my name, which is kinda strange when you think about it).

Lets just say I wasn’t your typical late 80s high schooler. Otherwise I’d have written “Beastie Boys Rule” or simply “Wham!”

Not me. I wasn’t going to be defined by my musical choices, but rather my lofty ideals. I had a loose plan of someday saving the world. Or at least showing the world how righteous you could be if you simply memorized a few quotations and outlined them in felt markers. I mean c’mon. We are the world, people.

My first car was a 1962 Ford Galaxie 500XL, and it was pretty sweet

My number one lofty ideal was spontaneity. Not that the daily grind of a high school Junior leaves many spur-of-the-moment decisions. There were the odd Fridays that I skipped afternoon classes and played pool at Jody’s instead. Sometimes I’d lower the top down on the Ford Galaxie when really summer was still months away. Or I might slide down the center of the outdoor escalators at the Wells Fargo Building in downtown Seattle just for fun.

Later, I would mourn the loss of this supposed spontaneity when I developed Type 1 diabetes and would need to take insulin and plan my activity with each dose of medication. When an unscheduled romp down a slip ‘n slide followed by a pick-up frisbee game could send you into diabetic shock, it’s easy to leave the bag of spontaneity by the front door.

So when my husband called me from two states away just after I finished by book signing at Brighton Resort on Saturday to ask me if I had any plans “Monday through Friday,” I didn’t even ask what he had up his sleeve. I remembered that old message scrawled across my desk and asked, “What do you have in mind?”

“Japan.” He said.

“What’s that noise in the background? Are you at the bar?”

“It’s puking in Japan.” I could hear him smile into the telephone. “Martin and Jesse and Scott are going too. Are you in or not?”

Maybe Japan will be something like this

I didn’t hesitate. “I’m in. Of course. It’s dumping? When?”

“Excellent. Now. Tomorrow.”

I would need to change my flight back to Seattle in order to make it happen. I calculated the gargantuan effort it would take to explain to John where my skis and all my gear was spread out in the patrol room–my ski boots in the boot drying room two pairs from the left, my powder skis one slot over from my locker next to the radio cabinet and behind another pair of skis, my helmet hanging above my locker on a peg, my ski pants at the apartment hanging on the back of the front door.

While he bagged up our ski gear, I’d head home from the airport and get our passports. We’d meet back at the airport an hour later. Could we do it?

“It’s dumping?”

“I just spoke to a woman in Hokkaido. The upper mountain was down today, roads are closed, cars are stuck. Its puking. Its sick.”

“Awesome. I’m all in.”

“Great,” John said. “I’ll call you back with the details in an hour.”

And so that was it. We are off to Japan to ski powder and eat sushi and soak in the hot tub with monkeys. I’ve been promised monkey hot tubbing, and I’m not leaving until I experience it. That and washing down a miso ramen with a Sapporo beer.

I’ll probably post a Japan condition report later in the week. And I might get out a High-Five Report sometime this week. But I may not even have internet connection since we don’t yet know where we’re staying. Oh did I mention that? We don’t actually have accommodations yet.

But that’s okay. Because “spontaneity rules!”