This year it's off to Japan, yea Japan.
First stop will be Narita and after 18 hours of continuous travel we have decided to rest in a hotel near the airport before making the six hour ride on the Snow Shuttle to Nozawa Onsen, our final destination located in the Japanese Alps. So why Japan, well it's about the powder. There is something about the way the winds from Siberia cross the Sea of Japan and create fluffy snow in the mountains and every skier loves powder. The season is short compared to the US because the mountains are only around 5000 ft.
We chose Nozawa Onsen because it is void of any international hotels and exemplifies a more traditional Japanese ski resort and oh yea then there's the Dosojin Fire Festival. It was difficult to book a western style room with an en suite bath for the dates we wanted so we made some compromises. So let's see how all this planning rolls out.
First night in Japan was spent at the Richmond Hotel (yea Richmond) not far from Narita airport. We received our "welcome to Japan" earthquake tremor which woke us about three in the morning. We were not aware of any damage but this little shake had us focusing on construction techniques throughout our trip. Then back to the airport to catch the Snow Shuttle to the resort. This direct transport eliminates a great deal of the baggage handling you might incur if you took the bullet train. The bus stops several times for bathroom breaks which gives you a chance to purchase food and or souvenirs. We along with many others opted for soft serve ice cream which is very popular in Japan (even at the ski slopes).
The first two nights in the resort town of Nozawa Onsen we stayed at the Lodge Ueno Ski because it was available during the fire festival. The room came with a futon and a shared restroom but hey it's about the adventure.
Dosojin Fire Festival
Well, the fire festival is conducted to bring prosperity, good luck and fertility to the villagers for the upcoming year. There’s a sacred process that begins with cutting down a Japanese birch tree the previous autumn, then on January 13 the tree is dragged down the Hikage ski run and through village with stops along the way to partake in the free sake. On the 14th and 15th the tower is built and as the sun sets on the 15th the battle begins and continues until everything is burnt to the ground.
The 25 year old male members of the village try an protect the 42 year old men from the rest of the villagers who are attacking them with burning bundled of rice stalks. The older men are perched on a platform made of highly combustible material some twenty feet or so in the air. The younger men are being taunted, threatened and beaten by flaming torches and after several hours of this the shrine, some 40 to 50 feet tall, is set on fire. The paticipants, especially the younger men are soot covered with superficial burns. Now this may not make sense to you but if you add a day long session of sake drinking, the fact that 25 and 42 are unlucky ages in shinto belief and more than 250 years of tradition and oh yea the tourism the village depends on..... well you can see how it's possible.
Here is a video of the construction of the shrine and its destruction. Just click below. Be aware that it does have sound.
To see a short version of the fire festival, please click HEREx
Bed and Board
We moved to the St Anton Hotel and Jam Factory for the rest of our stay. Nice place with good food and located right in the middle of the action. Our room located on the third floor (no elevator) was small with no dressers but two luxurious futons and an en suite bath with shower. The family staff was friendly and accomodating, making our stay very enjoyable. first evening at the St Anton we enyoyed the 8 course dinner which was outstanding. Every morning we were served a hearty breakfast featuring quiche or eggs, juice/yogurt and three different jams. It was all delicious.
You probably know that monkeys don't like cold weather but not far from our village is a national park where monkeys hang around during the winter because they can warm themselves in the hot spring water flowing from the mountains. The Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to Japan's famous hot-spring-bathing snow monkeys where the monkeys bath all year, not just in the winter. It is a popular tourist destination but a long hike to see monkeys bathing and frolicking in the snow or not if there is no snow.
Okay lets talk skiing. The worse snow in twenty years! We had one day of 20 inches and a bluebird day followed and then it rained. The base was good and there was all we could ski for 9 days in a row (you should never ski 9 days in a row). But that's part of the experience of skiing. The resort layout was quite different from US resorts. First you had to hike up hill for 2 miles before you arrived at a moving sidewalk that you rode for another two miles, okay this may be a slight exageration.
A benefit of staying at the St Anton is that they have a ski shop at the base camp so that is where we rented our skis and stored our boots and skis everyday and the hotel took care of everything including passes and all at a discount.
The ski area had several unique problems (at least problems to we US skiers). To catch a couple of lifts you had to hike up hill by sidestepping in your skis? Also the trail marking was somewhat lacking or confusing. You could be skiing a green and then it dead ends and all of a sudden you're on a black diamond run with moguls. Yikes.
There is a great variety of options for dining and we divide them into two categories, Australian and Japanese. Australian options include hamburger joints, hot dog beer bars, Italian cuisine and some standard fare at top end restaurants.
Japanese dining was much more fun . Usually these were exceptionally small venues that focused on a particular type on food i.e. sushi, noodles, rice bowls, hibachi grills. Typically they open at 5:30 and there is a line by 5:45. Depending on your party size you share a table and since we were two we often were seated with Aussies and Kiwis answering their questions about US politics.
But the most popular dining was right in front of our hotel where the hotel sold steamed dumplings filled with pork, or apples or mushrooms, etc. There was always a line for this street food and it was delicious. Oh yea also the hotel had a coffee shop in the front where they also sold gelato with intriguing flavors and generous portions.
We returned to Narita via the bullet train. Other than lugging our bags through the Tokyo station it was a good experience. Next a flight to Dulles then on to Dayton and some 28 hours from door to door we made it home.
As luck would have it there were no English channels on TV hence no US news making it a real vacation. However the 2020 Grand Sumo Championship was held in Tokyo during our visit and every night we watched the matches on TV not understanding a word. The day we left was the championship match which was won by a 500 pound underdog who was so overcome with emotion he burst into tears when awarded the trophy.