Saturday, March 3, 2018

Snowboarding in Hokkaido

After a few years of talking about it,  myself and my two nephews, Dali and Miguel, finally decided to go to Hokkaido Japan for a snowboard trip.  Dali reserved a few AirBnbs  and a return flight from Narita to Sapporo while I organized the flight from Vancouver to Narita as well as a car rental.   The flight to Japan was not looking good as far as availability   (for the cheap stand-by flights I get as an airline employee) but luckily, 30 seats opened up from  a domestic connecting flight out east that was delayed because of bad weather.  We were on our way. 

We had to overnight in Narita, a town I know well from work layovers. It was Dali's first time in Japan and it was cool to see his impressions of daily life and the urban landscape of the country.  We checked out Narita's large temple complex the next morning before heading back to the airport  for our domestic flight.  The cheap deal I had found online for the car rental meant that we had a bit of a trek to get from Sapporo's main airport to the office (train, subway and bus) dragging our snowboard bags along the way.  There was snow on the sidewalks and it was quite cold.  It felt  a lot  like winter in a Canadian prairie city, squeaky dry snow,  not the wet stuff we have in British Columbia. 

After barely getting all our gear into the car,  we drove off in the dark (with the help of the car's GPS) to the old Japanese house  we rented near Niseko,  technically an hour and a half away.   Once we hit the two lane mountain road, snowing like mad in the headlights,  it took more  than two hours as I had to drive at an average of 40 km an hour.  The snowbanks on each side of the road were massive sometimes reaching three to four meters.  The keys to the house were in the mailbox,  we found our room on the second floor... sliding doors, futons on tatami mats and cold!  There were gas heaters that eventually warmed up the room but the hallways and washroom were freezing.  It was a classic old style house that had its charm though and  it reminded me of the traditional house I lived  in Kyoto for two years, when I worked in Japan in in the 90s.

Next morning,  off to "Niseko Grand Hirafu Ski Resort"  to start our first day on the slopes.  I had unfortunately forgotten to pack my snowboard pants and therefore had to buy a new pair in a store.   There were quite a few styles available and, thankfully, in 'gaijin' sizes as most of the gear in the store we were in came from Australia.   We quickly found out that, like Whistler, Aussies have a huge presence in Niseko,  from running restaurants and cafes to being ski guides and instructors. 

Niseko is Hokkaido's biggest resort.  It has become very popular in the last ten years with a large amount of foreigners coming to experience its world famous powder snow.  It's one mountain that encompasses four ski resorts.  We bought a three day pass for 'Niseko United' which includes each resort. You can access each ski resort from the top of the mountain.  However, due to high winds the first two days, the top chair lifts were closed so we stayed on one side at a time.  The powder was indeed amazing and we were super stoked after our very first run.  What makes Hokkaido's mountains special as well are their trees.  They are mostly deciduous birch and poplar. Going through the glades, you can see much further than what we are used to back home in our evergreen forests.  The view of nearby Mt. Yotei,  Hokkaido's look-a-like Fuji volcano,  is spectacular when you can see it.

When you leave your car parked for too long...

It snowed the whole time we were there, on and off during the day, at night...  Every morning, we woke up to the sound of tractors and snow plows in the village clearing the roads and sidewalks.  There was always several centimetres of snow on the car.  We hooked up with my friends Cédric and Gloria who were also on a ski vacation and met them a few times on the hill and for dinner in the evening.

One of the best features of a trip to northern Japan in winter are their  onsens (hot spring bath houses). We were fortunate to have one a five minute walk away from our house and  took advantage of soaking in the hot baths every evening.  Heaven after a cold day on the mountain.   Our town, called Rankoshi, was a 20 minute drive from the resorts.  It was nice in the sense that it was quiet and totally local with very few foreigners.  

Cedric's 'rasta hat' was the source of a few good laughs.

After three days at Niseko, we drove to another resort called Rusutsu.  Another awesome mountain with a lot of terrain.  It is known for its vast amount of trees between the runs.  Again, heaps of snow and fantastic boarding.  This mountain had a more local feel with many more Japanese skiers and boarders than the other one.  We noticed several directional  powder snowboards that many Japanese use, a wider front with a split fish tail at the back.  If we had the same amount of light powder on our slopes, we would most likely be riding those boards too.  We also saw some great jackets and pants with crazy designs that made our typical Canadian gear look a little plain.


Kei, our AirBnb host, stayed at another home so we had the house to ourselves.   He dropped by a couple times in the evening to see if all was good.  A  really nice guy who speaks good English.  He works at another, smaller local ski hill close by called Moiwa and gave us three free day passes.  We had just had a phenomenal day at Rusutsu and were thinking of going back until  we spoke  to an expat on a lift who told us  Moiwa too was great, especially with new snow. There was plenty of that,  so it was another day, another hill.  Sure enough, it seemed that each successive day was better than the last.  We took a run off the chair into the trees, with insane powder, hooping and hollering along the way until,  before we knew it, it sloped down toward a steep gully.  We didn't always look at the map, which in this case, we should have.  Whereas other hills had ropes everywhere warning you of a no-go zone, this one did not.  We had to walk out in about four feet of fresh powder, uphill for about an hour,  back toward a track,  back to the run.  A good workout.

At the end of our fifth day, we left the village in the Niseko region to drive to the coastal city of Otaru, about 80 km to the east. There, we stayed in an apartment on the top floor of a new building for the last three nights. We enjoyed the warmth and modern amenities.

Cold coastline. (Across the channel, Siberia)

Snow everywhere

The plan was to go to Kiroro Ski resort for the last two days.  A forty five minute drive away on a zig zagging road brought us to the resort in Hokkaido that is known as one of the best for its massive dumps of ultra light fluffy snow.  We were not disappointed.  We agreed that there was no way we could ever snowboard seven days in a row back in BC.  The same amount of powder in our heavier snow back home would make jelly out of your leg muscles after a just a few days.

Our last day was a perfect blue bird day. We signed up to go out of bounds in Kiroro's back country and went past several 'gates' they had marking the regular runs to those on the outside. A thirty  minute hike brought to a high ridge with a spectacular view.  Again, magical powder. Quite a few skiers and boarders were set up with snowshoes and poles. We saw them hiking way up to more untouched bowls on the other side of the mountain.

We also enjoyed the short time we had in the evenings exploring the city of Otaru.  It's known for its sea food, especially crab.  Ramen and yakitori are also classic Japanese dishes we enjoyed. It was clear the morning we drove back to Sapporo and to the airport.  Just before boarding the plane back to Tokyo, the clouds rolled in and it snowed heavily again for half an hour,

Thursday, December 28, 2017


When I had originally planned on traveling to Indonesia for a month vacation,  I was thinking of going to the lesser visited islands of Moluku or Sulawesi.  The two main entry points for international flights are Jakarta and Denpasar. I thought I would just spend a few days on Bali before traveling onward with a domestic flight.  I had spent a month on Bali already thirty years ago, when I was in my early twenties. Although much of it seems like a distant dream,  I remember being enchanted by this unique island.  Bali is famous for its rich culture and its lush geography and is often spoken of in terms of 'last paradise' or 'magical.'  I knew it would be very different from when I was there and indeed it was.  The streets were clogged with traffic and the beach towns of Kuta and Sanur were miles upon miles of roads with shops, bars, restaurants and resorts all there for mass tourism.  

I stayed a few days on the coast, south of the mayhem of Kuta, in a more local fishing town and beach called Jinbaram. Early morning, there were many fishermen arriving in their colourful outrigger canoes with the nights catch.  There was also a large fish market with boats coming in from Java. 

Talking to the hotel manager, he told me there was a 'scooter revolution' that happened on the island about six years ago.  That was when it was flooded with relatively cheaply priced scooters.   Bali,  being the centrepiece of tourism in Indonesia,  has a much larger middle class than elsewhere in the archipelago.  Consequently,  all guest houses, hotels or AirBnB places had scooters for rent at a cheap rate of five dollars a day.  I therefore had a scooter everyday to explore and to get around.  I quickly learned the way one weaves in and out of cars and turns into and out of traffic on the busy two lane roads

I went to Ubud, the cultural capital of the island.  Again, I could barely recognize the town as it had grown so much. Through AirBnB, I stayed with a family in a traditional Balinese house with inner courtyard and a  small temple.  I was fortunate to be there during one of their main festivals of Galungan and Kulungan ceremonies whereby the Gods and spirits of ancestors return from the heavens.  They are welcomed with elaborate offerings and ceremonies which cleanse and balance the inner and outer energy of the island.  Temples are beehives of activity and everywhere you see the Barong dance, in which a sort of lion-dog struts around to the sound of the gamelan. The dance symbolizes the victory of good over evil. Each household in each village erects a "penjor", tall bamboo poles that are decorated with woven strands of palm and flowers which sway over the streets for about a month.  The family I was staying with invited me to their local temple for one of the ceremonies.  

A few days later, I found another guest house, one with a balcony overlooking rice paddies and the volcano Agung (which had started rumbling the previous month for the first time in fifty years) on the horizon.  Then and there I decided that I  was just going to spend the next three weeks chilling on Bali, with perhaps a week on neighbouring Lombok island.   I went to one of the evening dances put on for tourists and, while waiting for the show to start,  I overheard an American talking about  Ubud from many years ago.  When he mentioned the words "Simon's place" something  clicked and I turned around and immediately we had a connection.  Ed, a Californian, had arrived in Bali around the same time as I had, back in the 80s.  He ended up staying for 25 years with a successful jewelry business.  After the show,  we had dinner with his Indonesian wife Di and her daughter and her husband.  We reminisced about several people in Ubud, whom we knew in common at the time. I got a sense of all the changes that went on over the last thirty years and how the Balinese were carrying on.  For example, he mentioned how the younger generation no longer worked in the rice fields but rather hired cheap labour from Java.   

I spent the next week visiting the outskirts of Ubud on the scooter, painting watercolours and hanging out with Ed and seeing some of their amazing evening dances performances.   I visited several temples and art galleries and enjoyed getting lost in the back roads of this lush, vivid green island (I wondered how I did it before google maps!).  It was the beginning of the rainy season therefore there were massive clouds forming all day long with intense downpours for a few hours a day.   A perfect contrast of dark grey and bright green. 


Most Balinese paintings either depict daily life or stories from the Hindu epics of Mahabharata and Ramayana.
 This is an impressive one about a story of some evil Gods descending upon mortals. 

I decided to take the fast boat to Lombok, an island I had never visited before.  Most of the young   backpackers on the boat got off first at one of the three small Gili islands just off the coast.  These islands have become a sort of mecca for the party crowd. I decided to go straight to Lombok itself and eventually made my way to the southeastern coast where there is another 'Kuta' town and stretches of beach.  It also caters to tourists, particularly  the surf crowd. The surf and the beaches are  spectacular.   It's probably not unlike Bali's Kuta was 40+ years ago.

Although roughly the same size as Bali, Lombok is less populated and a lot less busy in terms of traffic and tourism.   I drove off on a scooter to the southeastern tip and barely came across any villages let alone traffic.  The island is much drier than Bali with more cultivation of tobacco than rice.  I  was reading an excellent book about the famous volcano Krakatoa (eruption in 1883) which described the history of knowledge scientists pieced together bit by bit over the decades about continental plates and subduction zones and their importance in relation to volcanos.  Indonesia is the country with the most amount of active volcanos in the world.  Lombok lays on the eastern side of what is called the Wallace line, a faunal boundary line that divides the ecosystems of S.E. Asia and the transitional one toward Australia.  Seeing the next island of Sumbawa on the eastern horizon,  I wished I had another month to explore it as well as Flores and Timor.  One could spend a year exploring the immense and varied archipelago that is Indonesia.

Lombok's Gunung Rinjani, second tallest active volcano in Indonesia

Outrigger canoes vary from island to island.  I borrowed one from a fisherman and went for a paddle. 


Upon my return to Bali,  the volcanic rumblings of Gunung Agung had started again.  From the balcony of my guesthouse near Ubud,  I saw the plume of smoke and ash rising on the morning of its minor eruption.   Villages at the base of the volcano were evacuated.  The airport then closed the day I was to leave.  As I usually travel stand-by, I now had to buy a ticket online to Hong Kong.  I was lucky to get one at a cheap price and it was on the day the airport reopened after being shut for three days due to the fine ash in the atmosphere.    There was a lot of hoopla in the media of foreigners being trapped on the island.  The Balinese did not seemed too worried,  except for those involved in tourism perhaps which, already,  Agung was having an adverse effect on visitors to the island.  

A spectacular sunrise taken from Batur, another volcano,  looking east at Agung  (photo off the net) 

here's my take on Agung's eruption

Volcano...?  what volcano?

Kuta beach

I took advantage of the three extra days to relax on the coast and check out the peninsula of Uluwatu and the beaches of Sanur.   There are some superb cafes, restaurants  and boutique hotels all over Bali and I had coffee and lunch at a few of them.  I rented a surfboard for a couple of hours for two days on Kuta beach.  I did manage to ride some waves but never got beyond the long board that I used.  I was hoping to try the shorter boards that better surfers all seem to use.   It was exhausting but exhilarating at the same time.  The morning I left, I could see the plume of ash  from Agung still rising high amongst the cumulus clouds from the airplane window.  As my taxi driver to the  airport told me, "it's up to the Gods if there is a major eruption or not."

cliffs of Uluwatu

hotel lobby