Location: Furano, Japan
Well, skiing was lots of fun, but nothing particularly interesting or cultural or different about it. I may as well have been skiing in Australia, except that the snow wouldn't have been as good. On the first day, I crashed into trees and twisted my knee. It took me about a day to relearn what I had forgotten from eight years ago, and after that I was relatively OK again. Not OK compared to the other crazy people who were whizzing past us straight down the mountain at the speed of sound...
On the second day it rained a bit, so Nick got a bit wary on the morning of the third day because it was probably going to be a bit icy on the slopes. Thusly, he indulged in his onsen fetish and went up the mountains in search of onsen instead. Bryan stayed in the cottage all day because he was tired of constantly doing stuff. Meanwhile, I persevered with the skiing, dealing with the ice as well I could. In fact I only stacked it twice on the third and last day! I was quite proud of myself.
It was good that we all finally got a break from each other and that we could do what we wanted to do rather than what somebody else wanted to do, although I think we all wanted to do what the others did too.
Location: Furano, Japan
We left Muroran and drove to Furano. It was a pretty boring day - driving, a boring lunch, checking in to our cottage, laundry, returning the car, etc. The cottage we stayed at was awesome. It was big enough to fit probably ten people, but since it was the off season, I got it at a crazy price, amounting to only approximately $66 a night each. We had a kitchen so we decided to cook our own dinner. We went grocery shopping and I had a field day at the supermarket. There was so much fresh produce that was new to me... My mind was whirring with recipe ideas as I frolicked between the sections, smelling and feeling everything available, especially if I had no idea what it was. We also bought cheese and crackers... it was crap!
Location: Hokkaido, Japan
We went to the fish markets in the morning for breakfast, during which time we stowed our car in a parking tower which was essentially a building with a rotating mechanism for storing cars. Kind of like a ferris wheel.
We headed to Toya-ko national park where the views were absolutely stunning. We drove alongside a giant lake which was as blue as something painted really really blue, with a backdrop of huge snow covered mountains. We were all pretty enthusiastic about taking some pictures ? even the tripod came out! The next stop was an active volcano. We paid our money and took the cable car all the way up to the top but were disappointed to learn that the snow had forced them close pretty much all of the walking trails. The view, however, was certainly not closed. It was far from it. We could see forever. We could almost make out Australia (not that we were missing it). The sky was ominous but there were some holes in the clouds which let the sunlight through onto the ocean, thusly creating the most spectacular ?fingers of god? effect which I had ever seen. Nick and Bryan took advantage of this situation to the fullest and pretended to be robots.
We then drove and sang on our merry way to Noboribetsu Onsen as it got dark (4pm?) and dove into the biggest and most elaborate onsen we could find. There were tons of people (compared to the three of us being alone, as was the case in the last few we had been to) and the place was absolutely massive. There were about ten to fifteen different pools to choose from, each different in style, size, heat (one was completely cold) and there were two outside in the snow. There was also a sauna, two walking pools with ankle deep water in a small circuit and taps which dropped water in huge drops proving to deliver one of the best back and neck massages ever. I mean it. Again, my favourite was the hot spa outside in the snow. It was a stupefyingly relaxing prelude to our impending stresses, and spooky doom.
We intended to check in at the youth hostel in Noboribetsu Onsen, then return to the busier area and have dinner then get shitfaced. We drove to the hostel (led by our trusty GPS), but found that there was no such youth hostel as listed in the Lonely Planet. We drove around the area a bit to see if it was kind of close in case the GPS got it slightly wrong. Nothing. We then checked the Youth Hostels listing in a brochure we picked up earlier and found that there was no such hostel. Damn you Lonely Planet! We sat for a few minutes and tossed around ideas for what to do instead. Our debate became quite heated and led to a full on fist fight in the snow. I can't remember exactly what happened after that, but we ended up in the neighbouring town of Muroran.
At first, Muroran was kinda scary, and a little creepy. 1. We had no intention of going there whatsoever; 2. It was night time and no one was around; 3. It's mostly industrially zoned; 4. It was cold; 5. The roads were hilly and snowy/icey; 6. Roadworks created a road closure which our GPS didn't know about, and forced us to backtrack several times which was not very nice, given the aforementioned adverse conditions. To top it all off, when we got to the hostel there, it seemed entirely deserted. There wasn't even anyone attending the reception, just an Engrish sign which read "Right now, semi-Bicchu It is going out right now." We were tired, wanted to know where we were going to sleep and we were getting hungry. We had a fairly large decision to make. Stay and wait? Get dinner then come back? Go elsewhere? Where? So instead of deciding, we played table tennis. There was a table tennis table set up in the middle of the 'foyer' so we rummaged around and managed to find some bats and a slightly dented ball. It took us so long to deliberate whilst playing table tennis, browsing the web on the linux based pc we found and flicking through magazines in the library, that the reception guy eventually came back from his semi-Bicchu, whatever the hell that was. Obviously, not a full Bicchu. Problem solved. Time for dinner...
We had about an hour and a bit for dinner before the hostel's curfew lapsed and we were locked out on the streets, huddling for warmth in the car. One thing would lead to another, and Bryan would be pregnant with our lovechild. Anyway... the point is, we were in a strange, (seemingly) deserted town and we needed to eat. We drove around the streets for a bit, looking for anything vaguely resembling a restaurant or purveyor of foodstuffs. Along one back alley, we spotted some light that looked warm and inviting, but it could have been anything. We pulled up to it and I stuck my head out of the window. The place passed my smell test with flying colours so we parked the car and moseyed on in.
Shock! Gasp! Everyone in the place was quite startled when Bryan and Nick walked in. The place looked rather homely. A husband and wife operation. They would have been good friends with all their customers. Occasionally new people would come and try their less than famous yakitori (skewers), but never foreigners... They had no idea what to do, and we had no idea how or what to order. All we wanted to communicate was "give us a whole bunch of stuff for us to shove into our food-holes", but our Japanese sucked and their English was equally bad (see: None at all). They were so happy to help us and tried their best to communicate with us, and their food was delicious. This place had put such a positive spin on our stressful night and we were so happy that they could have fed us pigs guts and we would have loved it. Then, there was the The Guy. Yes, The Guy. He walked in to the restaurant, presumably to pick up his take away yakitori, saw us and his jaw dropped. His startled and confused expression was timeless. It was as if had a momentary existential dilemma as he questioned his sanity. What? Who? Why? *explode*. Luckily for him, he was only one step into the shop, so he had a chance to leave the shop and have a think before he came back in again. Yes, he literally left the shop to catch his breath and his sanity. A few moments later, he was back and mostly recovered although still slightly dazed. Regrettably, Bryan missed The Guy's whole startling ordeal, probably because he was too busy looking at the porn calendar on the wall. Turns out, The Guy knew a bit of English, so he was more than happy to have a bit of a chat with us, and act as a translator between us and the restaurateurs. He showed us an advertisement for the place we were at, in a brochure showing local Muroran yakitori joints. Then, when he left, he put 2000 yen (approx $20) towards our bill. Wow. Nice guy! Thanks! All our troubles and stresses were relieved and we were in such a good mood that we were really quite sad to finish up and leave. We paid our bill and Bryan gave them an Australian $5 note as the only Australian present any of us had to offer.
Location: Asahidake Onsen, Sapporo, Japan
We weren't expecting to see much snow at Asahidake Onsen. We had initially intended to go hiking around the treacherous mountain passes. There was going to be a little bit of snow around, meaning that we needed waterproof hiking boots, and it would all be rather picturesque, relaxing, and probably autumnal. How incredibly wrong we were. Snow. We found a map of the walking trails in the area. The sign was about fifteen metres away from where we were on the footpath. We went to check it out but soon discovered that the snow in between was knee deep (at the shallowest). The next discovery which we made was that once you fell over, it was incredibly difficult to get up, because when you put your hand down, your hand just kept sinking into the snow so there was no way to push yourself up. We decided that we would take one of the walks regardless of how much snow was getting into our clothing, bags and cameras. Nick went back to the car to get his bag and Bryan and I went on ahead to scout the path ahead but found that it got waist deep and we were pretty sure that the way we were going was leading directly into a stream which would have been pretty bad, so we gave up on that stupid idea. Besides, our jeans were quite literally frozen stiff.
We visited the information centre to see if they knew of any paths which were actually walkable and they offered us snow shoes for hire! Excitedly, we strapped on our snow shoes and gripped our stocks. Bryan also hired gumboots since his regular shoes (Italian made Country Road casual suede leather) were totally inappropriate. Fifteen minutes later, we were wading in knee deep snow with our snow shoes through a pristine winter wonderland, seemingly untouched by humans. We all agreed that the experience could not be described with mere words (no matter how good the adjectives are), and even pictures couldn't do it justice (although I tried my best anyway). It was all very surreal. I felt like I wasn't really there. I couldn't possibly be. It was probably the most alien environment I've ever experienced and since it was originally so perfect, I felt a bit guilty for leaving such a huge track in the snow behind us. Later, I got over my guilt and started chopping snow off the signs and branches for fun. Bryan fell over in waist deep snow and couldn't get back up again for ages and about one step further, he fell over again. Our trail-making came to an end once Nick discovered that a bridge over a river we needed to cross was actually just a log, and that the snow covering the log was too hard to get rid of. That, and we were slightly averse to falling off the log and taking a swim in the river. This event really does warrant a page or more of writing, but as I mentioned before, words simply don't do it justice, so I'll stop.
Considering the snow was so heavy, we figured that our next planned step was going to be a waste of time; we were going to see some volcanic lakes in the mountains to the east of where we were. If the snow was still very heavy, it would have made the drive there tough, slow and dangerous, and we wouldn't have been able to see anything due to the poor visibility. Instead we decided to head for the coast. The drive out of the mountains was pretty scary ? my knuckles were white and my fingers were sore from gripping the steering wheel so hard. The conditions were so bad that they had closed a huge section of the expressway between Asahikawa and Sapporo, so we were led by our car's GPS system onto a detour. We were stuck on this detour in a huge traffic jam for several hours, during which time we decided to just stay the night in Sapporo and then keep moving again the next morning.
This particular night in Sapporo was pretty quiet and uneventful, except that I had a curry with level five hotness, where one was the least hot and ten was the hottest. However, levels six through ten were only allowed to be ordered if you could prove that you had already eaten an entire meal of the previous hotness level. Weird. Well, level five was pretty damn hot. I coped, but it wasn't a very enjoyable hot. After this, we went into a pachinko parlour, and left quite quickly. Imagine poker machines, but without the bar, and multiply the number of machines, people, staff, noise and music by a hundred (quite possibly more). That's pachinko.
Location: Sapporo, Asahidake Onsen, Japan
We picked up the car in the morning. It was so weird driving in another country. It took me ages to get used to driving with the different looking traffic lights and street signs. I was already used to seeing them, but driving is an entirely different context to walking (or riding a bike). We went to the shops again, because I lost my beanie the night before (from now on, to be referred to as "the bunny night"). I hadn't even used it after I bought it. In fact, I hadn't even removed it from its extravagant packaging. I had it in my bag, and then several hours (and drinks) later, it wasn't in my bag. Nick and Bryan were surprised at how well I took it. In fact, I was more distraught over losing the lid to my lip balm. OK, so I bought a new beanie. Bryan pointed out that the new beanie needed to be better and more expensive than the one I lost else I would always regret losing the original one. During my new beanie purchase, I lost my donut. Crap!
We headed up the mountains to Asahidake Onsen, and I became a little scared of driving all over again when the road started to get icy. Road textures which I was unaccustomed to in a foreign driving system. This was doubly bad. At least the Japanese drive on the left hand side of the road. When we got further into the mountains, it began to snow. The snow covered trees lining the mountains were beautiful; it was a view that I only ever imagined to be in the TV. Every time we turned a corner and a new vista appeared, one or more of us would exclaim something along the lines of "Wow!", "WAA! Sugoi! Sugoi!" or "OMFG!!1". This continued for a while, and then it started to really snow. There was, like, omg, soooo much snow. And I was all like "I can't seeeee and stuff!". We were pretty annoyed with the snow after a bit of this, especially considering we couldn't see any of the snow covered beauty with all that bloody snow in the way of it.
After we arrived at the hotel which the concierge at the Sheraton had booked for us, we went for a walk up the hill and the snow was... Snow snow snow snow snow snow snow. I can't be bothered to write this bit right here. It's just about the snow, and how much there was. Snow snow. Snow snow snow snow. Snow.
The three of us stripped and together we experienced something pretty damn relaxing. Onsen, of course. However, we were later to find out that the one in our hotel isn't that nice in comparison to so many others out there and yearning for us to dip into. There were three different temperatures of water available: the not so hot one, the hot one, and the really hot one. I sat in the hot one too long, and I realised this when I got out because I became really dizzy and my legs almost gave out.
It seems that dinner every night (except on the plane of course) has been totally amazing, and the best dinner we have ever had, except each night it's in a different way. Tonight's was awesome because we were served about 10-15 exquisitely presented dishes. There was so much food and so much variety that I couldn't decide where to start... Most of it was seafood based, and much of it was quite weird but all was wonderful. I had a raw prawn and raw squid for the first time, and there was some weird creature which lived inside a spirally sea shell. The tastes and the textures were totally foreign, but I was keen to try it all, especially if I had doubts about it!