The view of Mt Yotei from Hirafu
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Lessons Learned in Japan

In case you weren’t in the loop, I’m now in Japan. While I was in New Zealand, I got the opportunity to work in Niseko, one of Japan’s premiere ski locations. It averages a ridiculous sixteen meters of snow a season, and is comprised of four different resorts. I have been here for a month and it’s been wicked fun, but certainly a learning curve as well.

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Do you remember that movie with Tom Hanks, where he is stuck in the airport terminal, unable to enter or leave the country? Subsisting on mustard packets and saltines. Yeh, that one. Well I did my best to reenact it.

When I landed in Japan they stamped my visa and let me in the country without a second glance. Once out of the terminal I went straight for the nearest ATM, to withdraw some bulk Japanese Yen. The machine beeped and spat my card back out at me. What the hell? I tried again….., same result. Starting to get worried, I found another machine from a different bank. Beep, Beep, Whir. ‘Chip not working’. Crap! I ran around like a mad man trying every machine I could. After several attempts I was still penniless and starting to come to terms that something had gone horribly wrong. In case you are wondering, the card was an internationally compatible card, that I had used in many other countries, without fault. But now it seemed that during my plane flight, the chip had ceased working. Unfortunately Japan, despite its futuristic toilets, is still a cash society. Credit cards it seems are hardly accepted anywhere. Not that it would’ve helped, considering I left my credit card at home on the kitchen counter. Oops! So I was stuck, in the New Chitose Airport, a regional airport of Sapporo, with nothing but a $2 aussie dollars coin to my name. I had no way to get to a bank without catching a train or taxi. Oh, and it was also a Saturday, so that probably wouldn’t have helped anyway.

Upon landing, I was supposed to buy a train ticket (with cash) to Kutchan, where I was due to be picked up by my new employers. After exhausting every option I could think of, short of trying to pawn my new skis, I had to admit defeat. Next, I needed to send an email to my employers, informing them that I was going to be late. It was lucky I did however, because fortuitously, in my inbox was an email from a colleague. I had never met Malek before, but we had been part of an email chain containing information about our future employment. He had seen that we were arriving the same day, and wanted to see if we could split the taxi fare to Hirafu. I quickly emailed back and explained my situation. Malek, is a bonafide legend, and he agreed to spot me the cash for the train ticket and taxi, so I could at least get to Hirafu. I’d have to figure out the rest from there. Awesome, but there was a catch. He wasn’t arriving for another 10 hours. With nothing left to do but wait, I found a comfy seat and set up shop. The airport doubles a shopping mall for the local suburbs and there were food vendors everywhere. They had fed me on the plane but it wasn’t long before I was drooling over sushi with a rumbling stomach. It was torture, watching the minutes tick by and the battery drain on my laptop and trying to ignore my hunger. I heard a tone and an email popped up. It was Malek, telling me his plane had been delayed two hours. Oh well, whats another two hours, I thought.

When I finally met Malek, we had to run to catch the last train as it was almost 10pm, I had been stuck in the airport for almost 14 hours. Man, was I stoked to finally be on the move. A two hour train ride and 15 min taxi ride brought us to our staff accommodation around midnight. There was a rushed introduction with my new house mates as they were walking out the door, headed for a local bar.

A classic japanese lodge and dumping snow.
Haruka Lodge, My accommodation for the winter.

“Do they have food” I asked?

“Yeh, they do a mean ramen.”

“Sweet, count me in.”

I threw my bag in the house, and followed them up the street with some money borrowed from Malek. I haven’t been back for that ramen since, but at the time it was the best thing I have ever tasted.

Lesson one; keep some cash on you at all times, to exchange if all else fails, especially in a cash country like Japan.

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Japan is the master of snacks both sweet and savory. Fresh fried chicken can be found, in many flavors, at nearly every corner store. There is every flavor of chocolate and potato chip imaginable, such as green tea Kit Kats and these delicious black pepper potato chips. They also love ice creams. You can buy soft serve ice creams in protective cups and a couple of my favorites include the cheese flavored or the vanilla balls wrapped in rice paper. Sometimes though, the line between savory and sweet is not so clear and the packaging can be very deceiving. In less than a month, I’ve already lost track of the amount of times I’ve bought something expecting it to be a sweet, only for it to be incredibly bland or savory. A prime example of this is Natto, a black bean paste, that when heavily processed looks a lot like chocolate (at least it does to colour blind old me) It sometimes comes on sticks, or in bars. So a few times I’ve bought what I thought was a chocolate bar or ice cream, only to bite in and find out otherwise.

Lesson two; If you try all the different snacks, be prepared for anything. Don’t make assumptions.

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The main reason I came to Japan was for the snow, or ‘yuki’ as it is called here. Niseko sits in a magical location, where a peculiar weather system, consistently draws cold air down from Siberia, across the Sea of Japan, until it then dumps cold dry powder on us. In fact it averages sixteen meters of snow a season. In the 4 weeks I have been here, there has not been a single day that I haven’t seen fresh snow fall from the sky. For skiing, what more could you wish for. However this also leads to a few complications. Firstly you don’t see the sun much, which seems fine to begin with, but it does begin to drain on you, as your body begins to lack vitamin D. I’ve heard that many people go into a bit of a mid season depression because of this. Secondly, even though it doesn’t really get that icy here due to constant low temperatures, the constant fresh snow on the road, combined with the traffic, means walking around town is incredibly slippery. I used to hear stories of people going to japan and breaking a wrist in town. I always thought that they just got too drunk at the bar, and made a fool of themselves. Well, I’ve fallen more times than I can count, all completely sober. Unfortunately you can’t just ski home from work as its a 50,000 yen fine if you are caught (about $600 AUD). Thirdly, skiing in chest deep snow is AWESOME! Except when you blow a ski off a jump, and it disappears, never to be seen again. Luckily this hasn’t happened to me. But a work colleague took some rental skis out and then spent 4 hours digging for it, and still didn’t find it. He had to walk back to work, all sweaty and with only one ski. Oops.

Lesson three; Lots of snow is amazing, but there are some downsides.

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These are just the highlights of my time here so far. There have been many more awesome things, but I’ll keep this post brief and post again soon. At this stage I’m enjoying the deep powder skiing, and making the most of my very expensive season pass.  We are still waiting for the mountain to fill in before we head out into the back country. There are definitely some more adventures on the cards.

Follow my Instagram for more videos and photos of skiing and exploring in Japan.

Sam
Avid outdoors man, aspiring mountain guide and author of 'For love of the Mountains'

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