We made it to Kiroro, a small ski resort on Japan’s North island, Hokkaido. Not far from the larger and more famous resort, Niseko. We are staying at Hopi Hills for two months as workaway volunteers.
Despite the huge amounts of snow they get here, the roads still aren’t gritted. Two of the French workaway volunteers discovered this the hard way. Driving to the nearest town they managed to crash the work van and tip it over. Not wanting to stereotype, but as the vehicle was sliding off the road, they did both admit to saying ‘ooh la la!’ as they tipped over onto their side. Note to self, don’t say anything like “whoopsie daysie” if I manage to turn a vehicle over here, for fear of ribbing from the French girls.
We are working five days a week, making pizza, doing housework, making breakfast for the customers and the workers, moving snow and feeding the farm animals (who I will introduce in another blog). Jack of all trades, master of none – this is right up my street. The work hours are dotted around though, so we get to go skiing in between work.
Our staff accommodation is basic. As we have opted for the double room, we have to walk through the owner’s room and up a few steps to get to our room. So far on this trip we have survived a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, driven alongside lorries at 75km/h in a go-kart, been spat at by alpacas and I have fallen into an icy river on the mountain. But despite these things the one that has put me out of action is spraining my ankle from walking down these few steps trying to be quiet! Thankfully the ankle is fully on the mend, there’s enough snow around here to keep it on ice.
I think Helena is a bit worried about my affection for the Kiroro resident St Bernard dogs #sugarandhoku. I have reassured her that she is no. 1, but I think there might still be some jealousy there. I remember seeing Beethoven the film as a kid and telling my Mum on the way home it was the best film I’d ever seen. I never have been much of a film buff. The dogs seem to only bark at snowboarders, so that’s another reason to like them.
So we go skiing, probably the main reason that we’ve actually come here. We get on a four-man chair lift with a Japanese lady sat on the far left. We lower the bar and place our skis on the rests and the lady starts yelling “Odo odo!”. We shrug our shoulders and mumble ‘sorry we are English’, but she keeps going on about this ‘Odo’ and I don’t know what or who ‘Odo’ is. Finally the penny drops and we realise that the chair lift bar and bubble come down automatically in Japan, as we’re trying to yank it down, our Japanese friend is telling us it’s ‘Auto’.
Given the technology we’ve seen in Japan, we should not have been surprised by the automatic ski lifts. Take the toilets for example, with their permanently heated seats and water jets able to fire at different orifices if that is your thing (personally I’m sticking with the tried and tested toilet paper). One toilet in Tokyo even had a wand sanitizer; even from my days as a Harry Potter extra I have no clue what this does.
We go on our first ski tour. Once we figure out which way round our skins stick on to our skis (think “all the gear no idea”) and check our avalanche beacons, we set off. Ten minutes in and we get to a river, where the way to cross it is along a fallen log, six feet above the ice cold water, the width of which is not much more than a ski boot’s length. We successfully manage to navigate our way across the log, shuffling inch by inch, trying not to think about falling in.
We hike up the hill, the toe of our boots attached to the binding, with the heel free to move and we learn to kick turn with some success and some falling over. We reach the summit of the ridge and prepare to ski by removing our skins and getting our kit ready for the descent. We set off from the top and approach a sea of powder, with the way in being a drop in off a snowy ledge. Tessa our resident guide jumps off the ledge and into the pillows of snow, and completes several turns whooping all the way down the slope. Helena is looking worried and tells me that she cannot do it. My response is somewhere in between telling her that she can do it and telling her that she has to do it and there’s no other option! Whatever I say must have worked, because she is off floating through the deep stuff before I know it. I follow up the rear wondering who’s going to save me in an avalanche. Snooze you lose I guess! Yes this is the Japow that I’d first heard about twenty years ago, seriously deep snow that hits your face as you carve your turns through it.
Coming down the mountain takes a fraction of the time it takes to go up (basic physics) and finally we return to that river crossing with the tree trunk. I’m waiting at the back of the group to cross the river and the next thing I know the ground is giving way beneath my right foot and I fall onto my knees in the river and the water goes up to my thighs. I feel the ice cold water rush over me and through my boots and Helena asks ‘Is it cold?’ I resist the urge to say ‘What the f*** do you think? It’s a mountain river!’, but actually I stay calm and eventually get myself up and out of the icy water. It’s been quite a challenging day all round with someone saying that she is never ski touring again.
Back at the ranch, Helena questions why she has fat skis and yet she still sinks in the snow. I tell her that she’ll sink on any ski and unsurprisingly this doesn’t go down too well. What I’m really trying to say is that anyone would sink into the snow, no matter how big the ski, it’s that basic physics again, but I can’t take back what I’ve already said.
Helena is worried I’m turning into a hipster/ski bum, as I haven’t shaved and I tried rolling up my hat so it’s not covering my ears (as all the cool kids seem to do out here). After half an hour (indoors) I get cold and start wearing my hat properly so it covers my ears, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a hipster. Despite what you have just read, we have enjoyed our first two weeks in Japan and adjusting to a new and very different way of life!