Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Exquisite Japan ! - PART I - Skiing in Hokkaido

This is Part I of a 2 part series on my recent trip to Japan..

I have been planning this trip for quite some time.. Almost everyone who has gone to Japan has come back spellbound with its beauty. I was thinking of doing a  backpacking trip - but then, there is nothing called backpacking in Japan. You end up spending a fortune irrespective of the way you travel...

Winter was just a few months away and i had already missed a season of skiing.. That was reason enough to plan my trip during Christmas.

As with every trip this one too had its challenges.. I wanted to spend as little as possible (definition of 'little' expense in Japan is not little in any sense for anybody living anywhere). Japan is expensive and I had to find the least expensive way of skiing and traveling through Japan.

Here was the itinerary:
A - Singapore
B - Tokyo
C - Hokkaido (Northern Japan)

One night at Haneda airport!

Backpacking means compromises. But, they dont seem like compromises when you get used to them - I am getting there, but not there yet!
I booked the cheapest set of flights from Singapore to Japan and then the cheapest domestic flight to Hokkaido. Now, this combination meant that i had a 12 hr overnight layover at Haneda airport. I decided against booking a hotel - just slept at the airport. It was indeed cosy...

 The next morning, I took a flight to New Chitose airport in Hokkaido. The view from the flight reassured me of good times in Hokkaido. There was abundant snow...

Just before landing in Hokkaido
As i boarded the bus from New Chitose airport to Niseko, I was completely sure that Hokkaido was going to be fun. The route was as white as Hershey's milk chocolate...

Mid way break in the 3 hr journey between Chitose and Niseko
On the way to Hokkaido

By the time i reached Niseko, it was dark. However, the bright lights illuminated the slopes beautifully.

Lovely powder!

Looking at the amount of snow around, I immediately realized that the next few days were going to be good fun. After checking in at Owashi Lodge (Tripadvisor review here), I went straight to get my ski gear rental. I was all set for good times !!

I spent the next couple of days on the slopes. The snow was just too good. So soft that you feel like you are skiing on Talcum powder. The view from top of the mountain was awesome !

The Onsen

Owashi lodge (Tripadvisor review here) organized a trip to an Onsen on one of the evenings. An Onsen is a natural volcanic hotspring which is supposed to have healing powers. We went to Niseko Grand hotel Onsen and i must say that is was awesome. This was my first experience of an Onsen and I coudnt have asked for more. The temperature was easily between -5 and -10 deg C and there was heavy snow. We were sitting in this outdoor Onsen completely naked (of course, under water!) in heavy snow. My hair was getting spiked up every ten mins due to the snow ! It was an awesome combination - we were in naturally heated water of about 40 deg C or so and out in the cold and in heavy snow. When we got thirsty, we ate snow ! We spent atleast two hours there - I could have never imagined spending that much time outside (in Japanese winter) without a single pice of cloth on my body.

One of the good things about these Onsens is that it removes all inhibitions one has about himself/herself - you are out there in nature with none of your belongings. I think that is what gives it spiritual significance.

If i were to point out one experience that tops everything on this trip, it would be this one.


After couple of days of skiing, i thought it would be wise to explore the region. I head out one morning exploring the village of Niseko and then onto Kutchan town. Niseko village has few more resports apart from Grand Hirafu and i took the shuttle that connects all of them. Went to Hilton, checked out deer sledging but that was fully booked for the day. Nevertheless, i was atleast allowed a picture with reindeers.

Kutchan is a peaceful little town that reminds me of suburbs of Montreal in winter. It was a very cold day (less than -15 deg C) and i couldn't bear the cold for more than 2 hours. Went around Kutchan to get a feel of the life of locals living there. In this part of the country, English is not an option and all you can rely on is human sign langauge. The sign language is something that has worked for me everywhere !! The restuarant did not have english menus but lickily for me they did have pictures !

Bar nights !

I spent almost every night at local bars spending time with tourists, and locals alike. I met a very nice family on one of those trips. Peter is an Australian who has settled down in Japan with his wife Taeko. They have a very cute little daughter called Leila. In fact, it is from him that i got to know that Sachin Tendulkar has retired from One day cricket !! We had very good discussions on cricket, as it used to be in golden days and on doing what one likes to do.. He runs a School in Japan, a hobby turned into a commercial enterprise. There are not many people in this world who are able to do that. Thankfully, he and his family did consent to posing for my blog.

 It was sad that this leg of my trip was coming to an end but then what kept me excited was the energy of Tokyo, which was the next leg of my trip.

Part II (Tokyo) coming soon...


Sriram said...

Awesome! A Japan holiday beckons. Looking fwd to part II.


R Athmanathan said...

Indeed! Beautiful country - a must do! Start planning right away because it aint going to be cheap! :-)