Sunday, February 24, 2013

Niseko -- The Land of Endless, Powdery Snow

Can't believe that two weeks have gone by already since I visited Niseko, Japan over the Lunar New Year holiday.  Wanted to put together a quick wrapup of my memories for an amazing trip!

The trip was a ski adventure organized with my Samsung colleagues.  We got off for the Lunar New Year holiday, and since all Koreans go home to see their families it wasn't very sensible to stay in the country.  Unfortunately the new moon fell on a Sunday this year so we only got Monday off from work, but thankfully I had a couple vacation days saved up.

Niseko lies on Hokkaido Island, the northernmost of the Japanese archipelago.  As the island lies quite a bit further north than Seoul, about even with the eastern tip of Russia, it has a wintry climate this time of year.  Niseko's location, on the southern part of the island near Sapporo, lies at the perfect confluence of chilly air plus sea humidity, meaning that it gets inundated with a seemingly endless bit of light, powdery snow.  By the time we arrived, the resort had already reported 540" (1371 cm) of snow for the season!!

I've never skied in so much fresh powder, and I actually had difficulty adjusting on the first day.  I was a disaster, falling all over the place.  Thankfully, when you fall in that much snow, you have about zero chance of hurting yourself, but then you have the difficulty of pulling yourself out!!  In fact, on my first fall I nearly lost my right ski in a snowdrift and, once found, I had the extraordinarily difficult task of figuring out how to stand up and put the ski back on in waist-deep powder.  Talk about a challenge!  I did a little backcountry skiing my first day with more advanced people than me and was exhausted (and scared) as I tried to dodge trees and keep my balance.  By the end of the day I was defeated by the mountain.

Down in my spirits, I anted up for an expensive two-hour private lesson the next day.  Given how much this trip was costing me anyway, I didn't want my last two days of skiing ruined by my inability to navigate such unnatural terrain.  The lesson gave me significantly more confidence, and by the third day I was back in the woods.  Such an incredible experience back there.  You're in seemingly virgin ski territory, just you and your ski buddies, just making your own path down the mountain.

This Japanese mountain, mostly uncrowded and massive, totally made Korean skiing look amateur.  We were staying in a town near the Grand Hirafu gondola but the mountain actually has 4 resorts total that you can ski with an all-resort pass.  Besides my trip to Utah last year, this was the only mountain I had done where the bottom lifts only take you to intermediate parts of the mountain, then additional lifts climb you closer and closer to the top.  The very top was almost always foggy and windy and rather difficult due to the extremely low visibility.  There was almost always snow falling, so good goggles and a face mask are essential.  When the mountain occasionally clears up you might get a view of nearby Mount Yotei, an almost perfect volcanic cone.  I'm told it's the second-most photographed object in Japan, after Mount Fuji.  Absolutely breathtaking!

My colleagues were great to hang out with both during skiing and apres, and we dined very well in the Hirafu town.  We ate delicious ramen, barbequed meat skewers at an izakaya, and sukiyaki hot pot.  Yum yum yum!!  Even convenience store seaweed rice rolls were quite tasty.  About the only thing missing was sobe noodles, as you see from Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations episode in Niseko.  We also could have used a hot tub near our cabins, given how sore we were at the end of long ski days!  Though Japan can be notoriously difficult for foreigners to navigate the Hirafu town is full of Australians so all the establishments have learned how to cope with English speakers :)

And there were cool animated figures at Sapporo Airport...I love Japan!!

Though it's only a 2.5 hour flight from Seoul I don't know if I will ever make it back to Hokkaido, but I sure hope I do.  The countryside outside of Sapporo is so empty and so not like the crowded Japan I imagined.  I do hope to make it back one day.

No comments:

Post a Comment