Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Snowboarding in Nagano

This was a fairly epic snowboarding weekend. Apologies in advance, this is pretty long.

We (six of us, evenly split between guys/girls and skiiers/snowboarders) left Shinjuku at 11pm on Friday, taking the night bus to Nagano. It took forever. By "forever" I mean that the bus stopped every two hours for about 30 minutes, and the whole journey was about eight hours. There are better ways to start a full day of snow sports than getting off a bus at 7am without having gotten any real sleep, but it's one of the cheapest ways to travel long distances in Japan.

We got our gear and went to the ryokan to check in and drop off our stuff, then geared up and hit the slopes.

It's the hats that really tie the outfit together.

The first lift, to get to the main ticket counter, had no safety measures whatsoever, unless you count the "do not jump" signs.

Note the lack of seat back, arms, or safety bar.

The next lift, though, was nearly the opposite. Completely enclosed, two benches facing away from each other so snowboards don't get tangled (ski rack on the outside). It was like being in a spaceship escape pod.

The unusually fast acceleration out of the station helped.

The sign for the ticket counter looks helpful enough...

Until you realize it points off a cliff.

After getting lift tickets (from the building behind the sign), we found a place for breakfast and plotted out which trails we wanted to do.

The skiiers went in one direction and the snowboarders in another, and we met up at the end of the day. Visibility wasn't very good (see Exhibit A), and the wind was fierce, but overall it was a pretty successful day. I'm not much closer to figuring out that whole steering thing (I can only turn left), but I got a chance to practice on some easy slopes.
Exhibit A

When we were too cold and wet to keep having fun, we went back to the ryokan to get out of snow clothes.

There are a lot of slippers in a Japanese inn.

Slippers for between outside and the lobby area
Slippers for between the lobby and the room
Remove your shoes in the room-lobby

Separate slippers for the toilet.
Also, my knees just about hit the wall.
But it's a toilet INSIDE the room, so I'm not really complaining.
The room itself is mostly tatami mats; the daytime setup is with a low table in the center with tea equipment on top. The nighttime setup is taking the futon mat, blankets, and pillows out of the closet and spreading them on the floor. This room is sized for six people (six sets of bedding in the closet), but the girls had a room and the guys had a room, so we had plenty of space.

Japanese inns don't have individual shower facilities, they have onsen (public baths fed by hot springs) instead. For those of you that have never been to one, I'll tell you all about it!

I'm told coed onsen exist, but I've only seen separate ones for men and women (full disclosure: I've only seen the women's side, I assume the men's side exists and it isn't an elaborate hoax). There is a small changing room, with baskets on shelves and a row of sinks off to the side. Usually there is a single small toilet room as well. This is where you take off and store your clothes and towel.

Remember to take off your silver jewelry! The hot spring water will tarnish it faster than you can say "holy crap!"

Photo from here. Not the one I was in, but this layout is pretty typical.
Once you're nude, brace yourself for the cold. Onsen aren't always outdoor, but this one was unheated except for the hot spring water. (Fun fact: it is surreal to be in a completely outdoor hot spring when it's snowing.)

Along one or two walls are showering stations, a stool, and a shallow bowl. Soap and shampoo are often supplied.

Photo from here.
Sit on the stool to wash yourself (so you don't splash everyone around you), and you can use the bowl to wash your hair, pour over your body, or try to thaw the freezing cold body soap. Once you rinse the area, you are squeaky clean (and possibly shivering). Time to jump in the bath! Well, slowly slide in. Cannonballs are frowned upon.

Test the water with your toes first, sometimes the water is so hot it's painful (a quality I now refer to as "onsen-hot" when talking about liquid temperatures. As in, "This coffee isn't warm enough, I like it to be onsen-hot.")

Sit back, stretch your legs, and relax. If you get too hot, sit on the edge or fill a shallow bowl with cold tap water and use that to cool yourself. Chat with your friends. (Onsen with friends is the best kind.) When you're ready to get out, stand up slowly. If your vision goes purple, sit back down for a minute.

The water is full of minerals, so you may want to rinse one more time at the washing station before leaving.

After the onsen, the ryokan served dinner. So many small dishes! On the plus side, there were so many things I could trade meat/veggies with Husband.

Covered dish over fire: meat, veggies, and noodles in broth
Plate: pork slices with shredded cabbage and a small amount of potato salad
Small round dish to the right: something cold and plantlike, possibly seaweed and bean or mushroom
Rectangular dish behind the red bowl: cooked salmon (or similar fish, they all kind of look alike to me)
Red bowl: miso soup
Round plate to the right off camera: sashimi
Upside down blue bowl in front: for rice, cooked in sink-sized rice cookers set around the dining hall
Under the rice bowl is a tea cup. There is always tea. (I love tea!)

After dinner, fireworks in town! Walk uphill, turn a corner, up some stairs, up two more hills, get on the moving walkway for about seven minutes...

It only looks like it goes on forever.
...and then get on a second walkway, just as long as the first one.
(Pro tip: Try not to fall when it spits you out a little faster than you normally walk.)

At the top of the walkway was this:

With taiko drums! Taiko drums make every event more exciting.
Fun fact: so does a cup of free sake! We found a table that was handing out paper cups of sake and cans of coffee.

No event in Japan is complete without some type of mascot character. Or three mascots, since the female mutant is mostly off to the left and the sentient broccoli is behind that guy's head on the right.
Can't you see it's freezing out here?
Fun fact: moving through a crowded doorway and seeing that mutant head walking straight toward you, significantly taller than everyone in the crowd, is kind of a terrifying experience. Kind of like how salmon feel when they swim past a bear.

Clothing for snow sports is usually colorful, but adult-sized footie costumes make it much easier to find your friends.
These guys are awesome. They wore those costumes all day. We saw them at lunch, too.

Before the fireworks, skiiers brought torches down the mountain. It might be more hypnotic if it weren't so cold.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love fireworks in Japan? Also, I found a space near a fire to stand, for which I am very happy.

I might have mistaken that for a finale, but it was just a random bit in the middle. This is the finale:

All in all, a successful day.

Breakfast at the ryokan was many more small dishes. So much food!

Far left: chilled plant parts (probably the leafy plant one of the mascots were designed after)
Dark blue cup next to the plants: tea
Plate: slices of pork, slice of apple, shredded cabbage
Bottom left: rice
Bottom right: miso soup
Right: salmon (or similar fish)
Top right: cold soft boiled egg in a light sauce. Apparently the secret is to scramble it up with chopsticks and drink it. (Pro tip: do not try eating with chopsticks. It will end badly.)

The bus back to Tokyo left at 2pm, so we didn't have a lot of time, but we did squeeze in some more skiing and snowboarding, this time with much better weather.

Husband brought the video camera with him over some small jumps. It's a little hard to tell, but every time his arm comes up, he's going over a jump.

I don't envy this guy's job: shoveling massive amounts of snow from the gondola station roof.

At the bottom of one of the lifts, someone carved out an igloo!
And then did something to disappoint it.

Something I didn't know about Japan until we moved here: people use water to clear away snow. There are sprinkler hoses across sidewalks, stairs, sometimes even parking lots. This entire section of road is covered in flowing water.

This kind of makes sense in an area filled with hot springs. It makes less sense when it translates to Tokyo behavior of people using their garden hoses to clear snow from their cars and driveways. Nobody sands or salts anything for easier walking.

It's a quiet town.
Mostly I just like this picture because the hat is so darn cute.

This architecture kind of weirds me out. First floor: basement with windows. Second floor: parking lot. Third floor: house.

Today's post-snow onsen was one of the public bath houses a few blocks away from the inn. There were two pools of different temperatures: just-shy-of-scalding hot and second-degree-burn hot. (Note: probably not medically accurate, but I didn't test the theory.)

Across the street was a public foot bath. Just a small wooden roof, a bench, and a stone tub for soaking feet in hot spring water.
This is a great idea. We should put one in our living room.

Just before we left, I went into a conbini to find a trash can for an empty drink container, and saw apple and peach wine for sale. Fruit wine? Yes, please!
Very low alcohol content and tasted more like juice than like wine, but that isn't a complaint.

At one of the rest stops on the way home, I found chili flavored KitKat! I couldn't really taste the chili right off, but there's definitely an aftertaste of heat.

Next time we'll look into driving so we don't need to take the night bus (also, the drive should take about 3 hours, not 8). Otherwise, I wouldn't change a thing about this trip.

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