Powder, crabs, ramen and beer. What do these things have in common? These are probably some of the best things about Hokkaido!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the geography on this side of the world (I was until I arrived here), Hokkaido is a pretty large island off of the northern coast of Honshu (mainland Japan). One of its peninsulas is home to the densest population of brown bears in the world! Hence why I won’t be backpacking up there in the Spring, Summer and Fall months! 😉 It’s also home to some of the best powder in the world. Lovers of pow from around the globe travel to Hokkaido for its ridiculously fluffy white stuff, so go figure that the one time we make plans to experience this heavenly fluff, Hokkaido experiences some extremely rare and unseasonably warm temperatures…
We landed in Chitose around 8:30am and boarded a bus bound for Teine. I’d say we were on the mountain by noon and about 5 minutes after having gotten off the lift for my first run I face-planted in some fluffy powder! For me, there was a seriously large learning curve when it came to skiing (yes, I put the snowboard away for this trip and dusted off the old skis) in powder versus skiing on ice. “Ice… wait, what?” I’m from New England, what do you think we ski on there?!? 😉 While Mike ripped it up in the woods with his powder skis, I spent the day laughing my butt off with two other guys from Mike’s battalion who were about as talented in the powder as I was. We had a great time! That evening we went out to a restaurant that served a one-size-fits-all crab meal for a mere $80/head!! For those of you who don’t know me, I’m not a huge fan of seafood, so this wasn’t so appealing to me, but I sucked it up and joined the group. We were served some little appetizers (I have no idea what they were and that’s probably a good thing), a raw seafood plate (that included crab legs, salmon and squid*, a shabu-shabu sort-of crab soup, a fried crab (almost whole — sans-legs — it was AWESOME), a risotto-style rice bowl (YUM!) made with the reminisce of the soup stock, crab brains (yes, that’s right, crab brains and I tried some) and a yogurt-type dessert, plus all you can drink beer and sake… I was full and feeling pretty good by the end of the night! Later that evening, things weren’t settling as well as I had hoped they would… Let’s just say that I didn’t make it to the mountain the next day.
*Note, the raw squid (stripped of the skin) was the weirdest piece of food I’ve ever placed in my mouth… It was like chewing a tire. Not much taste but probably took over a 100 bites to break it down to a manageable size. I will probably never put another raw squid in my mouth again. 😉
After a morning of recovery, I decided I felt well enough to walk around town. I headed down to the Sapporo Factory Shops. I first came upon the older section of the shops. It was a brick building that once served as the Sapporo Beer Factory. I had a big smile on my face as I headed inside as it was quite reminiscent of home. I love how warm and cozy old brick buildings feel! Once inside I discovered a slew of artisans working on their creations as shoppers perused their items. It was awesome and boy do I wish money grew on trees!
That evening we all went out and enjoyed a delicious yakiniku meal for Nate’s birthday, I took it easy and laid off the booze and slowly consumed some rice with vegetables. I surely didn’t want to miss the trip to Niseko!
Niseko was supposed to be the BEST place for skiing/riding in Hokkaido and I’m sure it would have been, if it were actually cold outside! When our bus dropped us off at the mountain it was actually raining… RAINING!! Seriously?!? Luckily for us there was a beautiful hotel with lots of comfy seating and plenty of alcohol. We all grabbed a seat and ordered up some spirits to lift our spirits. After a couple hours of conversation and beverages a few of us headed out to the slopes, determined to make the best of the day. It was unfortunate that the top was closed, as it would have been my first time skiing above tree-line. We seriously lack elevation in New England, and therefore, I’ve only known summits to have trees. The skiing wasn’t the worst, nor was it the best, though. Either way, we made the best of it and I must say, I had a pretty good time!
That evening we celebrated Mike’s birthday with my favorite Japanese food, Ramen! We all piled into one of the many Ramen restaurants jammed into this tiny alley (Ramen Alley) in the middle of the city and it was delicious!! I ordered a Ramen bowl with corn and a hunk of butter (about two tablespoons worth). Apparently this Ramen bowl is specific to Hokkaido, so I figured, “While in Rome (or in my case, Hokkaido)…”! After stuffing ourselves with noodles and such, we headed to an Irish Pub. I realize this would sound totally normal if we were back in the states, but keep in mind, we’re in Japan. Irish or any other sort of nationality-themed restaurants or bars always end up being quite amusing. Let’s just say that they’re less “Irish” and more “the Japanese’s interpretation of Irish”. I often wonder if it’s the same in other countries where there’s not much outside influence from other cultures. After a few drinks and many laughs, we all headed back to the hotel. As we were getting ready for bed a somewhat familiar sound filled the air, it took my brain a second to recall that it was the sound our phones make to warn us of a quake that’s about to hit (the alerts only sound for larger earthquakes). “Awesome!”, I thought to myself, “Just the sound I wanted to hear 12 stories up in a hotel room!” Sure enough, about five-ten seconds after the alert the hotel started creaking and swaying. Thankfully, the Japanese know how to build earthquake resistant buildings WAY better than they know how to decorate Irish Pubs, as the earthquake simply rocked us to sleep.
At times, we were nearly blown off the mountain on Sunday at Kiroro. The high wind gusts, low visibility and the seemingly small pieces of hail that exfoliated my face as I skied down the mountain made my decision to thrown in the towel early and grab a hot coco with Bailey’s in the lodge, an easy one! That evening we brought our thirst and appetites to a bottomless beer and yakiniku meal at the Sapporo Bier Garten (no those aren’t typos). It was deliciously filling! We burned off a few of those calories with a stroll through the area where the Sapporo Snow Festival would open the next day. We were able to catch a glimpse of some of the sculptures as the artists put their final touches on them! The detail that goes into some of the sculptures is mind-blowing! Interested? Get more info and check out some pictures here.
We headed back to Teine for a half-day of skiing before hopping on the plane that evening. It was a gorgeous day and I was determined to fine-tune my powder/glade skills! I spent most of the morning in an easier section of glades, slowly building my confidence. A couple hours before we were scheduled to leave I caught up with Mike who informed me of a beautiful section of glades with fresh lines that would be manageable for me. I was feeling pretty good about myself, so I followed the gang into the trees. Mike and Karen, another woman we were with, stopped and I, feeling a bit cockier than I should have, skied right past them… “BAahhhhh… THUMP!” Next thing I knew I was facedown in a ditch about six feet below Karen’s skis. I quickly sat up and pain shot through my right elbow and shoulder. Mike, Karen and Jess, peering down at my sad state, asked if I was OK. “All I heard was cracking. Give me a minute.”, I replied as I forced out a little laugh. “Shit!”, I thought to myself, “I did NOT just break my arm hours before I’m supposed to catch a flight back home!”. Thankfully, after a few deep breaths, the pain started to subside. I was fine, my ego was a bit damaged, but my arm was OK. I guess I can thank my tank-like genetics. There have been many instances in my life where I’m certain I should have broken a bone, yet, to this day, that has yet to happen (knock on wood). You can just call me Laura “the Tank” Ferioli! 😉
Despite the strangely warm weather we encountered, our trip was fabulous and we hope to do it again before we leave this amazing country!