I’m coming to learn that the snow here is as reliable as rain in Ireland. But after having my fair share of inconsistent ski seasons in terms of snow quality/volume, it is only natural that I develop a moderate amount of anxiety when the snow forecast for Niseko reads “0cm” for a string of days in a row. And yet, it always comes. Like a few days ago when all of a sudden the wind changed and the sun morphed back into the blotted out ball that we are so used to seeing down here.
But I digress…
Now that the epic powder skiing / bottomless snow experience has been ticked (and again and again) I feel it’s timely to begin to expand my Japanese repertoire beyond this mountain. I love Niseko as much as the next person but after spending nearly eight weeks here I am in full need of a break. Prior to taking a few road trips recently, it was beginning to remind me of Verbier in that to experience “real Switzerland” you had to make a big independent effort. In Niseko, Aussies are king. With just one hour time difference and the cost versus quality of Australian skiing, it’s a no brainer for them. But Australian market demands have forced the popularity of English speaking pubs/restaurants here and somewhat displaced the more authentic Japanese experience. Tim-tams line the shelves of every shop in town and Triple J regularly blasts out from the speakers of the kebab shop in the main street. Even the English voice over on the local bus to the nearest (non-Australian) village of Kutchan has a distinctly Aussie twang.
So whilst my powder skiing experience has been exceptionally good, my Japanese cultural experience has been minimal. I’ve picked up more Australian slang than Japanese which is a sad state of affairs. So I spent the last two weekends in Sapporo and Otaru – the first weekend was to take in the sights of both places during their famous festivals (Sapporo Ice Festival / Otaru Light Festival respectively). And the second trip was just to Sapporo to seek out some Japanese dentistry in order to fix the pirate look that I’ve been sporting since I chipped my front tooth on the mountain….arrrrrrrrr!
The Ice Festival in Sapporo
This was a little over commercialised, but well worth a visit. The quirky Japanese have a knack of making me laugh out loud with 30 foot Taj Mahal snow sculptures (with choreographed light show of course)
and a Japanese pianist enclosed in a glass box banging out J-pop.
Other highlights of the Snow & Ice Festival was the kicker set up in the park and watching skiers/boarders hitting the jump. A pre-curser for the Toyota Big Air Festival held around the 23rd February.
Otaru was a decidedly mellower alternative to the Ice festival. For ten days in February this town becomes illuminated by candles and small statue shrines by the locals. For me it was pretty novel to see snow on the beach and the ocean views themselves were a sight to behold.
We arrived in Otaru whilst it was still bright so we decided to head to the Otaru brewery & restaurant on the canal, a recommendation that was made to me from a friend living there. The brewery was the brainchild of Akio Shoji, a local guy who wanted to apply traditional German brewing methods to Japanese beer. Unfortunately, the Steins of Dunkel/Weiss & Pilsner kept us preoccupied for hours and by the time we finally fell out the door of the brewery, we had missed the entire light festival, save for a few lanterns on the river!
However, considering the non-hangover that we all experienced the following morning (thanks to locally brewed beer with no artificial crap in it) I would happily forfeit this annual light festival for a sip of the local nectar again. And the pork spare ribs there were a tourist attraction all to themselves. Kampai!
Speaking of eating, when Sapporo is not cracking out 30ft snow & ice sculptures for the hordes of tourists, it really is a cool little city. I coordinated my second visit to Sapporo to allow ample post-dental time for eating and drinking and thanks to my Japanese mate who used a Japanese food/drink website to find these little gems.
Aside from the numerous eateries, Sapporo has got some funky underground shopping arcades that permeate the whole of the CBD. And, on a nerdy note, there is something so lovely about a city that is just straight up easy to navigate around thanks to the fool proof grid pattern of their city centre. Not bad for a city of nearly two million inhabitants!
I look less like a pirate now (unfortunately) and have certainly whetted my appetite for exploring Japan after the snow begins to melt here. Not only that, but it has reframed my relationship with Niseko as being one that focuses less on the westernised Australian-ness of it all and more on enjoying the bounty that this mountain has to offer. As I write this, I have experienced probably the best powder day of my life (next post) just after I returned from Sapporo the second time. As I said in the beginning, my nervous anxiety about the snow conditions plateauing was quashed yet again and so my fingers and toes are now crossed for a big dump in March. Watch this space