Now, I’m not known as the fittest of belles. In fact, I have a rather unhealthy addiction to Malboro Lights and the sofa, so embarking on a crash snow-boarding course in the Mecca of powder and home to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano was daunting to say the least. Nevertheless, fresh from months lazing around the beaches of South East Asia and India and with nothing but bikinis and summer dresses in my bulging backpack I set off for Japan to a Hakuba ski resort.
Picture perfect snow-capped peaks and Christmas card chalets along with some of the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet greet you, and despite loving beaches like a fat kid loves cake, I couldn’t help but be seduced by Japans charm.
We stayed in Morino Lodge, a British and American owned establishment that immediately gave us ill-prepared hippie’s bags of snow-boarding gear to borrow during our stay. The vibe in Morino is laid back, helpful and with communal Gyozo and Shabbu-Shabbu nights, not only do you get the chance to sample some fantastic traditional Japanese food but meet up with like minded boarders and skiers to hit the slopes with the next day. Unfortunately for me I was hitting the slopes more literally than metaphorically; turns out learning snowboarding means spending most of the time on your bum.
The conditions in Japan where astounding. Thick, fluffy powder and beaming sunlight meant I was taking off my jacket after half an hour on the slopes. After trying a few snowboarding lessons and experiencing one questionable teacher who seemed half drunk and refused to take the class up the slope, the only school I can recommend is Hakuba Snowsport’s who were all incredible; they finally got even me to board with some respectability. Sadly I messed that up by doing a ‘Cirque de Soleil’ front flip and fracturing my rib – but apparently I won the award for most spectacular fall so it wasn’t all in vain!
I spent the next few days enjoying the incredible sushi restaurants that litter the streets of Hakuba. Sampling the delights of a local English style pub aptly named ‘The Pub’ five minutes walk from the lodge. Although I wouldn’t recommend the food in The Pub (unless microwave Pizza is your bag) there is a fabulous restaurant attached that serves some of the best gourmet fusion cuisine in Hakuba – although beware, it is a bit pricey!
This unexpected break from proceedings also gave me the opportunity to soak my aching muscles in an onsen (hot springs in Japanese), the indoor and outdoor hot tubs believed to benefit your health due to the mineral content of the water. It can be a truly amazing experience to bathe in deliciously hot water whilst surrounded by a snowy landscape.
There are plenty of onsen to choose from in Hakuba including one opposite Morino at the Tokyu Hotel. There are separate onsen for men and women, but be aware the etiquette is to go in your birthday suit after vigorously scrubbing yourself; jumping in in a swimsuit would be considered rather strange. Never fear though if you don’t want your western wobbly bits on display: You can book yourself a private onsen for yourself, or you and your partner. Buy yourself a beer and let it all hang out!
I also spent a lot of time in the loo. No I hadn’t eaten a dodgy prawn, nor had I taken to reading the Times Newspaper. It’s just Japanese toilets can only be described as spaceships from the future! It’s a testament to a country famed for its incredible technology that they have made even the humble commode a sight to behold. Heated toilet seats, hot and cold water jets, music buttons and I kid you not a FAKE flush button to hide the noise when you tinkle! Incredible! In fact, the Japanese culture, people, loos and idyllic setting were all contributing to Japan being the highlight of my six-month travel odyssey so far. Unfortunately, our snow adventure was about to come to an abrupt and untimely end.
It was March 11, 2011, the day we were due to leave and my husband had promised to take me up to the parts of the mountain I hadn’t seen and was unable to board down. I spent some time taking photos of the ridiculously talented Japanese skiers and boarders showing off their freestyle skills in the snow-park and the brilliant white landscape around me.
As we sat to enjoy a coffee in the mountaintop cafe the earth began to shake violently. I jumped up, ‘’Earthquake!’’ I said to my husband. The Japanese who are used to quakes looked on nonchalantly, but we decided to head down in the gondola in case of avalanches. We reached the bottom to find the locals checking the news reports and calling family members. The quake was a lot more serious than we thought.
The epicenter of the quake was a full six hours away and a tsunami was causing utter devastation and damage to nuclear power plants. We were in the midst of one of the biggest natural disasters in hundreds of years. The magnitude of what happened didn’t hit us until we got back to the lodge and saw the news footage of buildings being swept away in tides of murky brown water.
We were stranded in the mountain, as the transport situation in Tokyo and beyond was unable to operate. During this time we realized that the friendliness and respect we observed from the people of Japan went deep below the surface. The Japanese people are incredibly resilient. They put the British stiff upper lip to shame with the control and dignity they displayed.
We watched one man on TV go from room to room at a school acting as a refuge for survivors looking for his wife, still bowing his head with respect for all he met and showing unfathomable strength. The lovely owner’s wife hadn’t heard from her parents who lived in a tsunami danger zone but still fussed around the people in the lodge and was utterly selfless. Morino began campaigning for all hotels to offer their rooms as temporary homes for the survivors and set about collecting warm clothes to send south.
In the midst of this tragedy, we saw something incredibly beautiful. A country that had an intrinsic sense of community, strength, and resilience. And although you may think this experience would have marred my memory of Japan, it, in fact, did the opposite: It reinforced my opinion of a truly amazing country.
Despite having spent the last seven months in, Morocco, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India and Lebanon, Japan is without question the highlight of my journey. I have no doubt that I will return, and when I do, the resilience and fortitude of the people that I have come to know and love will have rebuilt Japan in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.
Hakuba, Japan Skiing
Header Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom