Story by Leif Whittaker, Photos by Freya Fenwood
During a two-week ski trip to the north island of Japan, four friends and I learned some valuable tricks for staying comfortable, safe, respectful, and well fed in the land of deep powder and raw fish.
Airports close overnight
Our flight itinerary included a 12-hour layover in Osaka and our plan was to find a secluded corner of the airport, blow up our Therm-a-Rest pads, and pass the time in fitful sleep like we had done in so many other airports around the world. However, upon arriving in Osaka we soon discovered that airports in Japan actually close overnight, which meant we were about to get kicked out on the street with our 50-pound ski bags. I went onto Booking.com and secured a room at the cheapest hotel within a few miles of the airport. When we told the taxi driver where we were going—the Fine Garden Hotel—he gave a little chuckle and said, “Fine Garden is love hotel. You know? It’s made for loving.” We were still laughing when we opened the door to our suite—mirrors everywhere, a red feather next to the bed, and a romantic ballad playing on the stereo. I could imagine what might be hidden between the sheets, so I crawled into my sleeping bag and fell immediately into a dreamless slumber.
SeicoMart and 7-Eleven have everything you need
If you’re traveling on a budget and wondering how much you’re going to spend on food, have no fear. The quality and variety of food at the local minimart is astounding. They’ve got triangles of nori-wrapped rice with all sorts of stuffing—tuna and mayo, shrimp and mayo, salmon, and cod roe. They’ve got “clouds”—fist-sized balls of fluffy dough filled with curry, pizza, pork, or fish. They’ve got fried chicken, rice bowls, yakisoba, and tempura. Be sure to practice moderation with the citrusy drinks called Chu-Hi, which, at 9% alcohol, are deceivingly strong. We ate countless lunches and dinners at SeicoMart or 7-Eleven, and I was never dissatisfied.
Careful what you do with your chopsticks
When you remove disposable wooden chopsticks from their package and break them apart don’t rub them together like you’re trying to start a fire because it indicates the restaurant you’re sitting in is cheap. Never stab your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leave them sticking out because it’s a symbol of death.
Don’t be afraid of the toilet seat
Even in the most rudimentary Japanese accommodations the toilets are often high tech. Seats are heated, which can be a little unnerving when you’re the first person to drop the kids off at the pool in the morning. Toilets usually have buttons for sprays and female bidets. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Just remember the red button with the black square means “Stop.”
Always carry your touring gear
It was a storm day and we awoke early to catch the first chairlift. Looking between my skis at uncut powder, I felt excitement building in my chest. We unloaded at the top of the windy mountain and went immediately to some steep glades. There wasn’t a single track and I hooted for joy as I arced turns between trunks with papery bark. The terrain filtered us into a gulley that led out to another chairlift, but there still weren’t any tracks. That’s when I started to get worried. Where was everyone? When I got to the bottom I saw that my fears were justified. There hadn’t been any signs, at least not in English, but nevertheless the lift was closed due to wind and the only way to get back to the open sections of the mountain was to hike. Thankfully, I had my skins.
Don’t soak in the onsen for too long
Many hotels and townships have public baths/hot springs. They’re usually gender-specific, almost always nude, and constantly hot. Visiting the onsen is a wonderful way to loosen up sore muscles after a long day of skiing, but be careful not to soak for too long. On my first trip to the onsen at Rusutsu Resort, I made the mistake of sitting in the hottest bath for more than half an hour. The next day my legs felt like overcooked ramen noodles and my skiing wasn’t pretty.
Make sure your teammates have a good sense of humor
In addition to what I’ve mentioned above, Japan offered us Americans countless opportunities to embarrass ourselves, and we took full advantage. For example: hitting my head on short doorways; climbing into tiny monorail compartments with enormous skis; driving on the wrong side of the road; being unable to communicate the most basic information in Japanese; playing skee-ball while wearing ski gear; playing heated games of Settlers of Catan in public; and walking against the flow of humanity in the center of Tokyo’s famous Shibuya crossing. If you’re thinking of visiting Japan, make sure your travel partners are willing to respond to these types of situations with a hearty, self-deprecating laugh. It will ensure that your adventure is nothing but fun.