Friday, April 13, 2018

Havana - Decaying Splendour

I just returned from a quick four day trip to Havana,  my first time back since two previous visits  to Cuba about twelve and fourteen years ago.  Apart from several renovations to some important buildings and public squares in Old Havana, not much has really changed.  The predicted new era with the recent death of Fidel and Obama's push to normalize relations with the U.S. has been stifled  with the Trump presidency.  

Although there are many new private joint-ventures,  especially with regards to restaurants and hotels, the city still seems frozen in time with its old American cars of the 50's and Russian cars of the 70's. Its absence of neon signs and advertising is another reminder of a city still on the edge of the modern world.  I had not forgotten the unique character of this tropical capital with its stunning (and crumbling) colonial architecture nor the vibrant and rich culture of Cubans.   Here are some photos from my digital archive as well as  some that I took on this trip to put together a quick little portrait of  'La Habana'.

2004  (maybe playing for a Cuban baseball team now?)

El Malecon, the avenue along the waterfront, is slowly getting renovated with a few
 upscale restaurants and some awesome public art.

Wifi hot spots in public places (accessed with a pre-paid card) are giving Cubans much more internet
access than even just a few years ago. 

Hotel Nacional

Edificio Bacardi

Local artists selling their work on Paseo Prado.

Rumba, son, salsa, bolero, Afro-cubano, habanero...  so many styles and rhythms in Cuba's rich musical heritage. 

Coloured black & white photo I made from a great art deco apartment building.

Much more street art now. 

Wider streets and detached houses of Vedado

siempre revolución

home of the mojito and daiquiri 



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,