The Egg Man

We have moved bedrooms and had a bit of an upgrade. We now have bunk beds and we seem to be sharing the room with fewer kamemushi (aka stinkbugs) than in our previous room. These little blighters, the size of a fly, are common in Japan and pretty harmless, but do release a stink if bothered. Helena elects to take the top bunk which has no sides to it. ‘It’s a long way down if you fall’ I say, ‘yeah’ she says ‘I want lots of sympathy if I fall’. ‘To be honest’ I say, ‘I think you’ll be dead if you fall from that height’. She’s not so keen for the top bunk anymore, and so I take one for the team and make the top bunk my new home. One morning, Helena says she thought there was another earthquake in the night, but actually it was me just turning over in bed. We’re eating a lot of pizza over here, so maybe it’s hit my waistline more than I realized.

We are now on breakfast duty 3 or 4 mornings in the week. One of Aussie guests says to me one morning ‘Are you the egg man?’. I say ‘yes I think so, would you like me to get you some more?’. He continues ‘No more, but they are delicious!’ One of the staff here also commented ‘Those eggs are the bomb!!’ Guys, I’m literally just making scrambled eggs, but hey I lap up the praise. I confess I have watched a video on YouTube with Gordon Ramsay showing how to professionally make scrambled eggs and also how to professionally swear. While Delia Smith once got a pasting in the news when she brought out a book teaching us how to cook eggs, I do pick up a couple of pointers from Gordon and I’ve not wasted 3 minutes of my life. Add butter, together with un-whisked eggs to the pan and cook those eggs f*cking slowly are the key points I took away.

We’re cooking on gas!

I’m pleased that the Aussie guests like the eggs. The other day I cleared away what I thought was all rubbish outside of their room. ‘Helena’ I said ‘we’ve hit the jackpot here, they’ve left coke, snickers, milky ways and loads of booze for us!’ That evening the owner asks us if we’ve seen all the food and drink the guests left outside of their room.The penny drops, “what a muppet” I think to myself, they’d left it outside their room to keep cool and they hadn’t checked out. We return all of the food and booze minus a couple of sugary items. I feel like I’ve redeemed myself somewhat, cooking them a tasty breakfast everyday since. A week later when the Aussie guests are actually checking out they say ‘Keep cooking those delicious eggs mate!’ I feel like I had a fairly good handle on Scrambled Eggs before I came to Hopi Hills but perhaps I’ve now found my calling in life, CEO at Hopi Hills (Chief Egg Officer).

In the restaurant kitchen I seek out the ingredients I need from the walk-in fridge. Some things are more clearly labelled than others. The Japanese language doesn’t have the equivalent of the English letter “l” according to Google. So the box labelled “Rettuce” contains a green, leafy vegetable that is used in salads and you will know well. All those customers at the pizza joint that I turned away asking for a “meat rover pizza”, I apologise, please come back and I’ll serve you up a delicious salami and sausage covered pizza. For the record my Japanese is pitiful (despite my LinkedIn profile at one point saying that I could speak 6 languages), and asking Japanese people to order from me in English in Japan does at times feel a little embarrassing and awkward.

Big box of lettuce

The last time we ate out for sushi was in Tokyo, near the old Tsujiki fish market. We opted for one of the smaller sushi set meals on the menu. I warned Helena about the sea urchin, from the time I’d had it previously, ‘the texture is like eating a soft squidy light brown dog poo (I imagine)’. Helena has the urchin and actually totally agrees with me. Washed down with some miso soup and that’s a couple less sea urchins to stand on in the sea and skewer your foot on. The rest of the sushi was delicious.

One day we ski in Rusutsu and Helena sees there is a sushi restaurant on the mountain ‘That’ll be expensive’ I say, to which she responds that I always say that. My counter argument is that when you’re up a mountain and away from the sea, perhaps fresh fish should not be the first choice of meal. Instead we opt for a Beef Ramen at the gondola base station; the restaurant has one of those vending machines that you put money into, push a button and it spits out your meal tickets. It’s sort of exciting because you’re never 100% sure what you’re ordering, all of the buttons are in Japanese and I’m matching the prices to pictures on the wall in a kind of Uno type food game, hoping I’m going to enjoy my food lucky dip. Just please don’t let it be sea urchin again. Thankfully I get a tasty Beef Ramen with udon noodles. It’s customary over here to slurp the noodles loudly if you’re enjoying them and while it feels very un-British, I give it good go and slurp away.

Helena pre sea urchin

The evening meals here at Hopi Hills are traditional Japanese, but the breakfasts I would describe as Western. For the two of us this usually consists of three courses, toast & jam, porridge & fruit and a bit of fried breakfast. The French girls seem pretty astounded at the amount of food us Brits can put away for breakfast; they have their orange juice and one slice of toast, while we are wolfing down the calories. Should one get lost in the backcountry, those extra calories will be very welcome. Helena affectionately refers to me as “The Human Dustbin”, due to my eating abilities; I’m sorry but a measly pain au chocolat and a jus d’orange is just not going to cut it for me.

Helena greets the customers in the morning and makes coffees. Despite her never drinking tea or coffee, she’s doing a good job and even practicing her coffee art. The Aussies here seem pretty obsessed about the process of making good coffee; the Australian coffee culture is one of the most refined in the world apparently. If anywhere has a refined Diet Coke culture, I reckon Helena could compete at a high level (soz H but you do call me a dustbin).

I’m working a pizza shift with Marion and we’re talking about food we both enjoy making. She tells me she likes to make pattiserie. When she asks me what I like to cook and I respond with ‘I actually like British cuisine’ ooh la la, she seems astounded that two words can actually be linked together. I guess Jamie Oliver and Tom Kerridge are not topping the cookery book charts in France just yet. With Marion’s bit of je ne sais quoi on the doughs and my pizza toppings, we manage to keep the customers happy.

The staff food here at Hopi Hills is actually pretty good. One of the favourites is okonomyaki, which is a Japanese pancake made of batter and cabbage. Okonomi means “what you like” and yaki means “cooked”. We get a whole selection of things that we can add to it, including vegetables, seafood and meats. One of the best things about it is just saying the name ok-on-om-i-yaki, it just feels quite good to say and you feel a tiny bit Japanese; saying “cabbage pancake” just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.



I manage to persuade Helena to come ski touring again; in fact she didn’t need much persuading. Today we are skiing with some guests staying at Hopi Hills, Jamie & Sebi, the “Swiss Boys”. They are repeat customers for the Kiroro backcountry and the famous light “Hokkaido powder”.

We travel to the resort in their car and Sebi wheelspins out of the car park with heavy rock music filling the car. If this is how the day starts, then it’s going to be an adrenaline fuelled one I think to myself. At Kiroro resort I register our climbing route with the Mountain Club, who work alongside the ski patrol. Joe from Sheffield working on the desk, ‘You’re not going to end up in Otaru again are you?’ he says smiling . ‘You heard about that?’ I say. Clearly the news of our little adventure has travelled. 

Jamie explains the plan for the day; the four of us will hike up the mountain as a group. They have a plane to catch this evening, so they’ll need to return earlier than usual. ‘Once we all get to the top, Sebi and I will ski down and you two can have some smoochie smoochie before heading down yourselves.’ Jamie is a joker and this is the Swiss banter we can expect, we both quite like it. Don’t make the mistake of saying these guys speak German (I did); it is Swiss-German they speak. They are both very polite, always addressing us by our first name. ‘Helena take one large step forward… Simon keep your weight on your wheels (I presume he means heels)… Helena do a big kick on your turn.’

Sebi is breaking the track for us in the fresh powder and we follow the channels that his skis make. Jamie says ‘Look at the goat go!’ looking up at Sebi sliding along gracefully. I ask if he is referring to Sebi as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time). ‘Simon, be more like a mountain goat!’ he says, willing me on to keep up with Sebi. We then have a discussion about whether Roger Federer is the GOAT. Being Swiss, unsurprisingly Jamie is a big fan and believes Federer might well be the GOAT ‘He’s a nice guy too’ he says. Helena is not such a fan and says she thinks Rog is just a bit smug. Since we’re somewhat putting our lives in the hands of the Swiss Boys today, I suggest she lets it go.

Helena being a mountain goat

We’ve now been hiking mostly uphill for 1 ½ hours and Jamie points out it would take the two of them just 50 mins to get to the top on their own. ‘Helena you are with the Swiss men with Strong legs’ he says. I glance back to check no smoochie smoochie is happening. We continue climbing higher and due to the avalanche risk, we’re now moving through the trees rather than across the open snow face. The gradient is now quite steep and it can be tricky to kick turn in amongst the trees. ‘This slope is a tough motherfucker!’ Jamie says. ‘What’s that in Swiss German?’ I say. ‘We would say tough motherfucker’ he says. I’m glad we’ve cleared that up. I think what he’s trying to say is the fact that we’re still fairly new to touring, we’re doing OK. ‘We haven’t fallen over once today’ I say to Helena. This is a vast improvement on our first ski tour, when negotiating our way up the mountain and learning to kick turn at times we resembled Bambi on Ice. ‘Why did you say that?!’ Helena says, as she almost falls over doing a kick turn, but manages in the end to salvage it. ‘Oh Simon is skiing switch!’ Jamie says, as I’m sliding backwards down an icy steep section, trying but failing to get my skins gripping the snow. He has quite a good way of telling people what they’re doing wrong, but being funny at the same time.

Helena approaching the summit

We reach the summit and prepare our kit for the descent, which is a bit of a faff. I’m sure that pros can do this pretty quickly. I unclip from my bindings and stand in the snow, at which point I sink in it up to my waist; this bodes well for the ski down. The skins get peeled off the skis and thrown into our bags. We switch the boots from hike to ski mode and setup our bindings. Last thing is goggles on and we’re good to go. I ask Helena if it’s now time for the “smoochie smoochie”, ‘not now’ she says, I think Jamie is a bit disappointed, but she is now in the zone and ready to rip. We thank the Swiss Boys and say our farewells, they hang a left to ski the spine of AK face and we’re going to ski the trees until we reach the valley.

Jamie, Helena, me, Sebi

We ski down several turns in the deep untracked powder, as I turn I can feel the snow hitting my chest and face, it feels like a cloud. I stop and at the next line of trees and say to Helena ‘I think this is the first time that we’ve actually enjoyed ski touring’ and she was going to say exactly the same thing.


As we reach the bottom of the valley, we realise that we’ve gone too far and will have to hike back up to get back on route. This feels like a pain, but this is ski touring and it comes with the territory. We cross the river running through the valley and I don’t fall in this time. Result. The path ahead is uphill so it’s time to get our skins attached to our skis. One of Helena’s skins has too much snow on it and will not glue to the ski and therefore won’t work. No skins, no going uphill. I suggest she tries moving with just one skin attached. It’s now snowing heavily and we’re tired and ready to be back home. Sensible skiers would probably now be enjoying their afternoon tea and cake, with their feet up back at their catered chalet. Not us though, we are up shit creek without a skin. I should mention at this point, that Helena skied into a tree the other day and fractured a rib, so she’s still in a lot of pain from that. Take a rest day you say? Have you met Helena?

When you ski in California they have signs that say “CAUTION TREES DON’T MOVE”, which seem ridiculous and funny at the time, but one or two here in Hokkaido would not have gone a miss.

Helpful sign in Lake Tahoe, but missing in Japan

I tell Helena to take my skis and I will take hers and try climbing with only one skin. I just need to clip in at the front, so that should work. I manage to make headway on Helena’s skis, with one ski gripping and the other slipping, looking like I am limping up the mountain on crutches. I take a shallower line up the slope and take a fresh line through the powder which gives me more grip on the snow. It’s still difficult though and I’m working hard to keep up with Helena. The enjoyment level by now has dropped somewhat, especially compared to the point of us claiming our love for ski touring, just one hour ago. ‘You’re my hero’ she says, as she’s standing on top of a hill, looking back at me in her new fatter skis. This is normally something she might say in jest, but I actually think she might mean it this time.

We are slowly coming round to the idea of hiking up the mountain to “earn our turns”. It’s a long way up for a few turns down, but those few turns down are pretty sweet. To the Swiss Boys, we owe you a beer.


When ski touring goes bad

We register our backcountry ski plan with the ski patrol at 9am. So that it looks like we know what we’re doing we don’t ask any questions about the route. Then we set off for a couple of warm up runs at 9:30am; it has snowed overnight so the powder is pretty good even on the piste.

At the top of the chair lift we exit the resort through the backcountry gate. We attach our skins to our skis and off we begin to walk through the winter wonderland. I’m thinking how picturesque it looks with the new snowfall. Three guys are ahead of us, so the fact that we’re following another group’s tracks in the backcountry bodes well.

The plan is to ski a bit, put skins on, walk up a bit and repeat. This should be a fairly relaxed tour compared to the falling in the river inaugural touring day. The pitch of the slope is quite steep, but the snow is really deep so this will slow us down as we turn. We make a few turns in the powder and start to navigate our way through the bushes and trees that stand in our way.

Almost two hours after we’ve left the resort we’ve come quite a long way down and any tracks that we were following have since disappeared. Our hope that the tracks would return to the resort have not materialised and we are now lost and a long way from home. We put our skins back on and try to walk up the hill, but in parts it is too steep and there are too many trees. This is not going to work, the only way is to continue on down. 

Helena is exhausted and all the time I’m considering what we should do. Inside I am worried, but I keep moving as I know that is the only way we’ll get out of this situation. Even if we sit and hope ski patrol would find us, what would we do then?

‘I’m never touring again’ Helena says, not for the first time this trip, I think she might mean it this time. I now feel like we’ve gone too far down the mountain to hike back up. ‘We have three options’ I say, ‘the first is to try walking up back up this hill. The second is to continue along this river and hope that it takes us out into resort or onto the road. The third is that we call ski patrol.’ I am really hoping it is not the third option; firstly it would be highly embarrassing, and secondly I struggle to see how they could get us out of this valley.

‘I’ll be really annoyed if I haven’t burnt a million calories after this’ Helena says. ‘To be honest, I’ll be happy if we get out of this alive’ and I’m sure Helena senses the seriousness in my voice.

We continue skiing alongside a creek and crossing it every so often when the route becomes impassable on one side. In places the snow has built up enough to create a powdery bridge that makes for a precarious crossing. I say ‘Watch that hole there and the river there’, the last thing we want is one of us falling in and getting wet now.

We come across a cliff section that’s too steep to ski down, so I slide down on my back and manage to make it down, not gracefully, but I dust myself off and stand up. Helena has chosen a different route down and the next time I look there’s a tangled mess of skis, body and bamboo. ‘I can’t move Helena says’, her skis are stuck in the snow, ‘I can’t get out of here’, she’s said this before and this is starting to become a bit like the boy who cried wolf. ‘When you’ve finished larking about there’ I say, ‘it looks like there is a path here and it looks promising’. Thankfully she laughs, and I know that she’s not quite at breaking point.

Helena “larking about”

At about 12pm we start walking along this path; the snow is untouched and each step we take sinks into the deep snow. We figure this must be some kind of hiking trail or road in the summer. Our morale has risen since we found this track and we expect to hit a road pretty soon. ‘I can’t tell you when, but I am sure this path will lead to a road’ I say.

‘Just when I think we can’t get any lower, we do’ says Helena. ‘Are you talking mentally or topographically?’ I ask, ‘All roads lead to the sea as they say’. She is talking topographically.

Given our predicament, we are in surprisingly good spirits with good banter. ‘Is this the most adventurous and possibly most stupid thing we’ve ever done?’ I say. ‘Yes and I’m quite happy for it  to continue to be the most adventurous thing we’ve ever done’ Helena says. I think we are agreed on that.

As we walk along the snow-covered path, no other human has left a trace. In fact there are barely any animals either; fingers crossed no bears come out of hibernation early.

We come across a mirror with a sign beneath it, and to raise the spirits I say ‘do you know what that Japanese sign says?’, Helena says ‘No’ and I say ‘It says mirror.’ Helena actually seems to find this quite amusing and so we get a photo for the daily instagram. We’re actually looking a lot more content than we feel at the time.

It says mirror (actually it doesn’t)

I am so hot and sweaty from hiking, so I stop for a minute and take of my fleece and jacket and put them in my backpack. Suddenly I feel very cold and I have the realisation that when the sun goes down and we stop, we would get dangerously cold. We continue on. I am genuinely looking around the environment thinking “what would Bear Grylls do?”. He’d probably check into a local hotel via helicopter, but that’s beside the point. I think we would either make a shelter from the bamboo or continue walking through the night to stay warm enough.

Finally after about two and a half hours of walking, we reach a main road coming from Sapporo ski resort. Helena waves frantically at the first car that passes us and the Japanese lady simply smiles and waves back cheerily before driving off. I remind Helena that the correct method to hitch a ride is to stick out your thumb, so we both do this. Another car comes shortly after, sees us and pulls over. I ask him if he speaks English and he shakes his head saying no. Bollocks. He then sees all of our ski kit and bags and I sense he’s considering whether or not to just desert us. Helena says ‘Kiroro’ and the guy looks visibly shocked and shakes his head ‘Kiroro?’; it’s understandable as this is more than an hour’s drive from here. He then utters Otaru station and we nod our heads and say ‘Arigato gosai masu!’. He opens the boot and his car is pristine, with a pair of skis that looked like they’ve never seen snow in their lifetime. I get into the front of the car, a sweaty wreck, feeling embarrassed about our predicament and the fact we can’t speak more Japanese to explain our situation.

We get to Otaru station and our driver says ‘chotto matte’ and runs into the bus station to ask about onward travel for us. We’re left with the car, seemingly in the middle of a taxi rank with taxi drivers giving us stern looks and waving their hands. I’m told that the Japanese love it when you say sorry, so all I do is raise my hands and this seems to ease the problem. We unload all of our ski kit and I offer our driver money, which he point blank refuses. He seems worried that he hasn’t fully arranged our itinerary to return to Hopi Hills. Apparently Japan is one of the best countries to hitch-hike in and now I can see why. Again we say thank you very much, I put my hands together with a small bow and the good samaritan is off on his way.

Yes we made it out alive, but we both agree this was reckless and not a situation we should repeat in future. We were lucky to reach that road and not just end up in a valley. This was the backcountry. This shit was real. Lesson learned.


When I grow up I want to be a Farmer

It’s true! I did want to be a Farmer when I was younger. I remember it clearly now, when I was seven years old and I was asked the timeless question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I answered ‘I either want to be a Farmer or a Senior Commercial Analyst.’ Well half of that is true. Anyway, so far it has been enjoyable doing some physical work on the farm here at Hopi Hills.

Also I get to play with the snowmobile. This thing is much heavier than I expected and the speedo goes up to 120 mph, it has some serious power to put down. I take Helena for a ride on the back. I say ‘hold on to me tightly’ and as I pull away slowly she lets out a yelp. Wait until I open up the throttle I think. I open up the throttle of course, and sure enough Helena lets out a full blown scream. I am loving this, but I think she is less so. We go round a corner and sink into the deep snow (do we need a snowmobile with fatter skis Helena?) and we both fall off in slow motion. Helena decides that’s enough fun for one day and gets off.

Liam (the owner) tells me to stick to the track, so in the beginning I do, then I realise I can go off-piste and let rip. Sorry Liam if you’re reading this, but your snow toy is back in the barn in one piece. One of the volunteers is filming me from a drone for a promotional video, so how can I give less than 100% for the performance? I squeeze the throttle on the handlebar to give full power and the snowmobile flies across the field of powder while the drone shoots over my head in the opposite direction. I feel a bit like I’m in a James Bond film. Boys will be boys.

One of the volunteers, Suha, is on a Hopi Hills housework shift with Helena. He tells Helena somewhat abruptly that she’s crap at making beds and asks how does she do it at home. Helena informs him that she has a cleaner who does it for her. He tells her that he’s worked with me and that I’m really good at making beds, and putting on the sheets in the correct fashion. He also commended my technique for cleaning the animal pens and picking up goat poo. This guy is just singing my praises. I don’t think Helena is offended too much being told she can’t make the bed. Helena is a bit miffed that my habit of picking things up quickly doesn’t seem to have halted.

Suha tells us about the animals we have on the farm; boy goats, ponies, alpacas, lady goats, an ostrich, boy rabbits and lady rabbits. This makes us laugh and think of home. Once my Mum told us about her pilot friend “the lady Captain”. Apparently the lady prefix was needed, because the vast majority of pilots (and Captains) are men, so perhaps it’s needed to reiterate the point that women can indeed fly aircraft. Maybe the lady goats have a special skill too beyond just eating hay; so far I have not seen it.

If any of the animals have anything close to a superpower it’s probably the alpacas. They can spit at you from 3 metres and hit you directly in the face. Helena has had this pleasure from both of the deceptively cute creatures. I tell her it’s just a power game and if you stare at them in the eyes, they’ll back down. I tell her this because it did indeed work for me on my first shift. The next day I get spat at in the face and I no longer claim to be an expert in alpaca behaviours.

The animal you probably want to be most worried about here is the ostrich. I’ll admit that even I am a little scared to approach the ostrich, so for someone who has a bird phobia (no names mentioned), this must be terrifying! Helena is on the animal feeding shift in the afternoon and she comes to find me and say ‘Will you be the best boyfriend ever?’. All I have to do is change the ostrich’s water to achieve this accolade, so I agree to the request. She says ‘I did feed it already and I did manage to get the ducks into their house, are you proud of me?. I feel very proud. I google how dangerous ostriches are and it turns out their kicks can kill a human or a potential predator like a lion.

I go and change the water for the big bird, with a little trepidation on my part and I manage to resurface unscathed.

Doing my Duke of Edinburgh Silver award at school I elected to do duck keeping as my skill. I think that some people saw this as a bit of a copout, because we already had ducks at home. So all I had to do was keep them alive and I was one step closer to getting my kudos from Prince Philip. 20 years on and I am putting those duck keeping skills to use again! One thing I can tell you is Japanese ducks are easy to put to bed, unlike their British counterparts. I recall hours spent running round the pond back home with my Dad, waving around garden canes to encourage them into their duck house and not unlike unruly children with a hesitant babysitter, they would just not go to bed. In the end this was to the fox’s benefit, but that’s another story. Forget herding cats, try herding (British) ducks. Once the Japanese ducks here are fed, it’s just a wave of the hand and they are in the duck house ready to lay an egg or two for breakfast…

Today we take the horses out for a ride. I take Ringa, and Helena’s steed is Tyro. There’s a third horse, Moose, who’s sole aim is to get in the way and bite us while we’re trying to tack up. I think about the Western horse riding I’ve done in the past and try to employ some horse whisperer techniques. I approach my horse the right way, I play mind games with Ringa, getting him to believe he’s calling the shots, but actually getting him to do what I want. I have the horses walking to me and I think I’ve nailed this natural horsemanship. Then I take the bridle and try to get the metal bit into the horse’s mouth. Ringa’s teeth are gritted and no matter how much are try, it’s not working. I speak to Liam and he slips on the bridle and bit into Ringa’s mouth in a few seconds. Maybe I won’t be the next horse whisperer in Japan just yet.

Helena is threatening to write a counter blog to mine, where she can take the piss out of me in her own blog. I think this a false threat and I don’t think she’s going to carry it out. She does have some potential comedy material on me though, so I’m watching my step.