I fell in a river

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.

Pictures and Cuddles are OK with Sugar and Hoku #sugarandhoku

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.

Toilet functions. Take your pick.

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.

I fell in a river #allthegearnoidea

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!


Definitely Not Mario Kart

We set off on the go-karts from Shinagawa, me as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and Helena as Tigger. Our tour guide pulls away, followed by 4 young guys in our group dubbed “Team Korea”. “Team London” (the two of us), follow up the rear. All is going well until 400 yards in, Helena’s kart is flagging and she pulls over to the side of the road. I stop just ahead and wait at the pedestrian crossing, my engine idling, feeling like a bit of a plonker sat in a go-kart on a main road in Japan dressed as a cartoon character, with onlookers and their prying eyes. 

Tigger is sat at the side of the road with her hazard lights on, in the hope they give her toy car some clout with a Tokyo bus now sitting behind her and expecting her to do something. Just before the bus driver loses it, she gets it into gear and trundles along to join me and we pull up to the next T-junction, bus crisis averted.

Helena starts to panic. “The group has left us” she says, “what are we going to do?”. Being the calm one, I coolly reassure her “well the group are just going to come back for us”. “But what if they don’t?” she says. Before Raphael and Tigger descend into a meltdown, our guide comes jogging round the bend dressed as Pikachu to ask if we are ok. And so we rejoin the group and our seven go-karts snake along the street, with engines screaming into the night.

We move into a busy part of Tokyo, with the Tokyo tower lit up and looming in the distance, like a poor man’s Eiffel Tower. It’s actually still quite impressive, but my mind is now more focused on the lorry driver right up behind me blowing his horn. Pikachu has not been quick to pull away at the lights and this guy clearly doesn’t have any patience for people having fun. I give him a cursory glance; if this turns into full blown road rage, I just haven’t covered that section in Japanese for Beginners yet. 

Before the tour started we were given a brief by the guides about what to do in different driving situations, delivered in a serious tone, while we all sat in our ridiculous onsie costumes. If we get overtaken, we should not try to race with the BMW, rather our guide will pull over and we will then just rejoin the group. We are told to keep the group together by leaving just one kart’s distance between each of us. We are also told not to beep our horns too much or use full-beam lights, “we don’t want to wake the cops” we’re told. Before booking this tour I googled it and saw that a Taiwanese customer had been involved in a hit and run while on a tour and the police had charged him. Note to self, if I hit someone or something don’t just drive off without stopping, this isn’t a video game where you can hit the restart button.

30 minutes into the tour we take a comfort break and have a quick drink at a rooftop bar seeing the Toyosu Fish Market and Disneyland Tokyo in the distance (Helena definitely wishes she was there rather than here). Pikachu informs us that we’ll now be heading onto Rainbow Bridge. As we get to the bridge it starts with a long upward slope sweeping round and everyone must have their accelerator flat to the floor, as we are all buzzing along at 40km/h. Unlike the Rainbow Road course in Super Mario Kart, this road does at least have sides to it, so there’s not much danger of us barreling over the edge into oblivion should we misjudge a corner or get shunted by another vehicle. 

Now it’s possible that this tour could be a great way to see the city, looking out from the bridge to the Tokyo skyline, except that I’m keeping my concentration on the road because there is a 40-tonne lorry overtaking me on my right and even though the potholes are not large, they cause the small go-kart to twitch left and right on the road.

Onto the second half of the bridge and we all still have our right foot flat to the floor, my speed dial is now in the red, with Helena 30 yards in front. I see our leader in the distance on the road sweeping down and around, with the first of Team Korea just a kart’s length behind him, both going 75 km/h+. Bit of a disaster waiting to happen if you ask me! Tipping is not customary in Japan, but in our briefing we are told that our guides do accept tips, so I think that our guide might be travelling at double the speed limit aiming to fulfill Team Korea’s boyhood dreams in the hope of getting several thousand yen in return.

We pull up at the traffic lights at Shibuya crossing, Tokyo’s iconic intersection where up to 1000 people can cross at a time. Our guide tells us to high five, so cringing slightly H and I carry out a really lame high five that can be caught on Pikachu’s camera. Again Pikachu is working for tips and taking photos of us all almost every time we stop at traffic lights.

We’re sat there, all of our engines idling at the crossing, and I can just feel my lungs filling with the exhaust fumes. Team Korea are all wearing the white face masks that seem to have taken off in Asia much more than back home. Now is the first time in my life where I think I could do with one right now. Team Korea ask Pikachu if we can take another pitstop and so after a few minutes we stop at a convenient place for us, but pretty inconvenient for the traffic trying to pass us. Scooby Doo then rushes off to the toilet in a bar, followed by Sesame Street’s Elmo (I think). Clearly all this excitement has got to them and their bladders have been overworked.

We pull up alongside a section of road construction. The Foreman doesn’t look all that happy, he’s probably just started his shift and has a long night ahead. He looks at the seven of us various cartoon characters and I expect him to detest us, except that he just lets out a little laugh and smiles. Whether the sight of us muppets cheered up his night a little, laughing with us or at us, who knows! Helena reminds me of the tourists who cycle around London on the mobile bar drinking beer, holding up the traffic and generally being raucous and annoying anyone going about their daily business. We might just be those annoying people.

Eventually all seven of us pull up at Shinagawa, pretty exhausted after 2 hours of driving, all happy to have survived the trip. I understand the company has been in a legal case with Nintendo over a copyright issue. The company was originally marketed as Maricar and customers drove around dressed as Mario and Luigi; I mean that sounds nothing like Mario Kart if you ask me… Given the danger involved I can see why Nintendo wouldn’t want anything to do with it!

Post go-karting we head home via a gyoza spot, after working out that we need to put money in the vending machine to get served, then the gyoza and rice are delivered to the table. Amazing.