Disclaimer: If anyone reading this speaks/reads Japanese, please feel free to correct my spelling or word usage.
I'd never heard of Niigata before we were invited to go on this trip, but we will probably visit again. The whole thing was a blast. We were brought along by this super nice guy we've known via the internet for almost ten years and have been hanging out with him since we moved here. Nearly everyone else was new to us.
All together, we had about a dozen people and a pretty international group. The major languages spoken were English, Japanese, and French. The Scottish guy from England speaks at least English and Japanese fluently and varying degrees of seven other languages, the British guy from Belgium spoke English/French/Japanese and shifted seamlessly between the three, the French guy spoke English/Japanese/French, one Japanese girl spoke fluent English/Japanese/Spanish, another Japanese girl was fluent Japanese and French and spoke a good deal of English, the Dutch guy spoke English/Dutch/German, one Japanese guy spoke English and Japanese. Husband and I were the only Americans, I was the only Western girl, and all the multilingual people were very patient with my bludgeoning my way through Japanese. I learned some new words, was walked through the cultural etiquette of staying at a traditional Japanese inn with a common bath and toilet setup (separate for men and women, but more public than I'm accustomed to), and I really hope I get to see all these people again because they're a really fun group of people.
The mountain vista is just gorgeous, although the whole range looks different than mountains I've seen before. Maybe because they're steeper, maybe because they're closer, I'm not sure. But it's pretty stunning to see, even at the train station when we first arrived.
Have you ever heard the Dutch Santa story? David Sedaris, writer/essayist tells it here and it's really different from what I've grown up with. (At the top left of the page is a Play button if you prefer to hear rather than read. Either way, I recommend it.) While we were waiting for a bus, I asked the Dutch guy about this and he told me something really interesting - now, in the Netherlands, they have BOTH. At the beginning of December, Sinterklaas arrives on a boat with his black helpers and that celebration stuff happens...then at the end of December, Santa Claus as we know him swoops in with his flying reindeer with more presents. Must be good to be a kid in the Netherlands.
But I digress...
The weather cooperated the most this day. Other days were all right, but the weather is pretty fickle, clouds and snow flurries were constantly moving in and out.
This is about as good as visibility got, which is pretty darn good.
Our elected group leader, giving us newbies a snowboarding lesson before we all tumble our way down the slope for the very first time.
Sweet mother of snowflakes, learning to snowboard hurts. The first half hour, I couldn't even stand up on the board because I couldn't throw my weight far enough forward, so every ten seconds I would let out a most unladylike grunt as I did my damnedest to throw my center of gravity forward enough to balance, fail, and feel my butt hit the snow with near-jarring intensity. I could feel the bruises starting, and it was incredibly frustrating to see almost everyone fly ahead of me and be stuck crab walking down the mountain a foot at a time. Then someone suggested I grab the other side of the board while I'm throwing my weight forward, and that made all the difference in the world. Once I was able to stand (at least on the third or fourth try), things started looking up. Husband and I both had some pretty spectacular wipeouts of the somersault/go-find-your-hat-and-goggles variety, but it started to get fun and we're at roughly the same skill level.
At the end of the first hill, one of the other girls was very encouraging about the learning process - both snowboarding and Japanese. This girl is super nice (fluent in French and Japanese, also speaks some English) and super patient with me. She'd speak slowly, then repeat things, and if I still didn't get it she'd give me enough English words to figure it out. And there's something about her voice that I could just listen to all day. Anyway, she's a good skiier, so I tried to say "You are fast, but I am slow," but I confused osoi (slow) with omoi (heavy). One of the guys picked up on my mistake and corrected me. We had a giggle and I made sure to mention the other Your Baby Is So Scary stories at dinner that night.
Going up the lift, you have one foot strapped in the board and the other free, so you can do some approximation of walking. I learned that I cannot for the life of me stand on the board and gracefully slide off the lift chair like a real snowboarder, but I discovered by accident that if I just drop my butt between the boot locks (a little awkward for the knee of the foot strapped in, but I'm just flexible enough that it's not a problem), I can ride the board like a sled and get out of the way of the next chair, and it's even fun! Not to mention at least five times faster than falling on my ass, fighting gravity and my left foot to stand, then taking exactly one step before falling again.
One guy who was also learning is very tall (at least six foot three or four) and he just couldn't get the board to cooperate. He could only stand up if he were facing uphill, but that proved to be very slow and hard to control, and if he tried to turn around to see where he was going, he just toppled over. He almost gave up after the first day, but it occurred to me that maybe the sledding thing would work for him too, and he was nice enough to humor me. He went from being the last one, crab walking down the mountain or unstrapping entirely and walking down, to beating half of us to the bottom, shooting down the slope like a four-foot-high comet made of snow. The expert boarders/skiiers said he was faster than everybody else and it was pretty spectacular to see this giant spray of snow barreling down the trail, but he was so far ahead of me I never saw it. ざんねんですね！ (Zannen desune! Too bad!) A real sled probably would have been even better, but we didn't see any to rent. If we had, I might have gotten a sled, too. Not because I was fed up with boarding, but because sledding is just so much fun. What we would have given as kids to bring our plastic sleds down a hill like that!
I'm not good at it by any means, but I've learned how to stand up and I'm starting to experiment with steering. My butt is severely bruised and looks like I've been severely beaten, but I expected that after the first day. What I didn't expect was how sore my upper body was. Everything from my jaw down to my wrists hurt. Even that strip of muscles down the front of my neck.
We stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn, sort of like a bed and breakfast)...six people stayed in a separate cabin, Husband and I stayed in the main building in this small room:
That table is a kotatsu, which is a marvelous invention. It's like a coffee table with a blanket, but there's a heating element underneath, so you can sit around and have warm feet. The carpet it's on is also electric. Behind the sliding closet doors to the right is all the futon bedding material. Futon here isn't a couch that folds out into a bed, it's just foam padding put on the floor. It's more comfortable than you'd think.
Being a traditional inn, there are rows of bedrooms that all share a toilet and a bathing area. There was a toilet upstairs and a shower area, but I figured I'd go for broke and use the larger bathing area downstairs. I was pretty nervous, because I have big tattoos and tattoos are still pretty taboo, and I'm terrified of the idea that I'm going to offend someone with them. Many onsen (hot springs) and most water parks are very clear on no tattoos being allowed. I was the first one there, but I wasn't sure exactly how to go about things. There's a sink area, then a doorway and a set of shelves with baskets, then another doorway to a large tiled room with showers (no stalls) along one wall and a large tub filled with hot water on the other side. It's not like my husband or my multilingual guy friend could help me out here.
I was lucky enough that one of the girls in our group arrived at the same time and I could follow her lead, and there were no older Japanese women already in the bath (the younger generation doesn't seem to have a problem with tattoos). I wasn't sure if I should always cover myself with a towel because there were no privacy screens or if I was supposed to wear the towel into the bath like they do on TV (no on both counts, which might have been more awkward if I wasn't having such a great conversation about language, culture, world travel, tattoos, piercings, and life plans, or if I hadn't had experience with nude art models in college drawing classes). And I learned that it's normal to sit on a little stool in front of one of the shower stations (complete with 12-inch-high shelf, bottles of shampoo and body wash, and a mirror next to the hand-held shower head), then once clean, soak in the glorious hot tub for a bit. As we were leaving, the other girls in our group came in, so no complete strangers were encountered. And if nakedness is culturally not a big deal in this setting, then I'm okay with it. But I'm glad I shaved my legs before we left.
This was New Year's Eve, and there was a group effort to purchase beer, chu-hi (short for sochu highball, essentially a girly drink in a can), and snacks (oh, the snack array! Everything from regular potato chips to fried dried squid and soy sauce/butter flavored popcorn). We chatted and watched a popular NYE special, a show called Gaki No Tsukai, in which several comedians are put in a seemingly normal situation (learning to be police officers, interning at a hospital, this year was to be spies or something) but if they laugh, masked men run into the room and whack them across the butt with a billy club. The staff of the show sets up surprises (a commander in drag, high school year book photos on their ID cards, celebrity appearances, that sort of thing), plus they try to make each other laugh. It's a little painful to watch and I don't understand enough to get what's going on most of the time, but our friends were helping translate, and there were some genuinely funny moments that needed no translation.
The French guy had flown back from Europe the day before and brought some wine, candy, and a king cake. I mistook it for pie because it was not tall, there was delicious filling, and the upper and lower layers were more like pie crust than cake as I know it. The tradition is that a slice is cut for each person present, and there is a paper crown in the box. Whomever chips a tooth on -- I mean, finds -- the fève (in this case, a tiny porcelain person), gets to wear the paper crown that came with it and is king for the day. Or, since I was the lucky one, queen. A photo of the moment exists, but I didn't open my eyes enough and I look like a stereotypical drunk girl at a party, so here's the fève by itself. You're just going to have to take my word for it that I wore the paper crown.
And to give you an idea of the actual size:
Day 2: Beware of snow!
This particular building doesn't allow smoking, but...
I'm sorry, what?
Is it a brand of ski equipment? Maybe it's a hot spot, like for wifi? (Ha!)
This three-bamboo arrangement is pretty common in Tokyo, too, I think it's a new year thing.
This lift had cockpits! When we sat down on the chair, we pull down a safety lap bar and then a windshield automatically closed in front of us.
For lunch we stopped at a neat round building, built around the wood stove (to the left). One of those ramen-ya type places with a ticket vending machine, and our friend that invited us was kind enough to help us with reading and making sure I got something that didn't have chicken/pork/beef in it.
It looks pretty uncluttered, but we actually had to wait about twenty minutes for a couple tables to open up.
One last picture of the slope from the bottom...five minutes later clouds and snow brought visibility way down, so it was lucky that I snapped this when I did.
Related but not in the same place, the view from the window of our room:
You know that stupid trick where you pretend to slide off a joint of your index finger? I totally taught a Japanese girl to do that without any overlapping vocabulary (her friends might have helped translate, but she got the gist of it right off). And from the girl sitting next to her, I learned a neat hand game that Japanese kids do: paper rock scissors, left hand vs. right hand, make sure the left hand always wins. I have to think really hard about what each hand is doing, but I saw this girl fly through them like she was interpreting the Micro Machines man for a deaf audience.
Day 3: a ski resort very close to where we'd been staying.
Lunch was rice topped with shrimp tempura (there are some mushrooms in there, too), and in the black bowl is miso soup.
In the miso soup, however, were these bizarre things. They turned out to be wheat gluten. A little squishy, not much flavor. I'm pretty sure this soup was made with chicken stock, so I didn't finish it and made sure to get a can of Royal Milk Tea afterward (seriously, that stuff works like magic for settling my stomach).
A little while later, there was a small booth handing out mochi for the new year. I guess it's a lucky new year food, or it's traditional. Or both. Unfortunately, I inadvertently got in the wrong line and was given the mochi dipped in daikan (radish), not the one dipped in sugar. The sticky chewy rice part was good, I could have done without the radish.
One of the Japanese girls was very nice and gave me some of her sugared mochi so I could try it. (Conclusion: dipped in sugar is way better.)
The new year is a big deal in Japan, possibly the biggest holiday of the year. They go by same zodiac cycle as the Chinese, and 2011 is the Year of the Rabbit. Coincidentally, while in the US we say the moon has a face, evidently in Japan it looks like two rabbits pounding mochi.
Which brings me to how it's made. This is done with two people (or two usagi, if you're on the moon) with large wooden hammers repeatedly hitting this blob until it turns all sticky and gooey and awesome.
They let Husband try it, too! たのしい！ (Tanoshii, fun/enjoyable)
After a few more runs on the slope, we went to the gift shop where I got this. I probably like it a lot more than I should.
Across the hall was a small counter serving coffee and cake, so we had some hot cocoa by the fire and watched the people still coming down the mountain as the sun set.
(It was really good cocoa, too.)
On the wall inside the lobby was this weather forecast board.
I think the lifts were still running, but fewer people were skiing at night. I liked the colored lights, though. Nice touch.
Shortly after this photo we made our way to the train station and got the shinkansen back to Tokyo.
Before the last few of us went our separate ways, we stopped at a small restaurant in a train station (train stations here aren't like airports or train stations in the states, they're centers of commerce and social interaction. There are entire malls and retail complexes built around train stations) for a late dinner, and I ordered this tomato thing.
It's called something like トマトファルシサラダ、tomato farushi sarada, written in Katakana, so it wasn't originally Japanese words...and we couldn't figure out what the word in the middle was. Farushi? We could confirm it wasn't originally an English word, nor was it French or German. We asked the waitress, and she went to find out for us.
Evidently it's "farushi" like "farce," or fake. It was a whole fresh tomato (totally fine with me, I love fresh tomatoes), but it was hiding some cole slaw. So our train of thought (with one last leap tacked on the end for my own amusement) went like this: Farushi --> farce --> fake --> trick --> MAGIC!
It's a MAGIC TOMATO.
Husband ordered a baked apple filled with vanilla ice cream. It didn't look like much, but he said it was good. How can you go wrong with baked apple and ice cream covered in powdered sugar?
I'll leave you with this: