Hokkaido II: The Return

“You know you’ve been in Japan too long when…”

“…you set aside every Sunday in December for enkai recovery.”


The word “enkai” is generally translated as “dinner party” or “banquet.” While the enkai comes in various forms, the most notorious is the “bonenkai,” or year-end party. Every group you are associated with will likely have an enkai sometime in December, and I had three within the span of eight days.


A. was visiting when I got a late invitation to my district bonenkai, and people were in rough shape by the time we arrived. Yoshi (Canada-ya) wasn’t capable of much more than smiling benignly, though he did invite me to stay at his house whenever I came back to The Village. Mr. Sticks immediately tried to climb on my back and grab my crotch, which happens so regularly that I’ve begun to take it in lieu of “hello,” and then he proceeded to remove his pants while singing karaoke as per usual. However, when he started to make “joking” attempts at touching A. in places that weren’t benign at all, I quickly lost my waning sense of humour. After numerous warnings and various physical defensive manoeuvres, I finally grabbed him by the wrist and twisted his elbow sideways.


“Maikeru… that hurts…”


“Yes. So it does.”


Mr. Sticks spent the remainder of our brief time together making me nervous by sitting on the chair right next to A. while getting very intimate with a girl from his office who wasn’t his wife.


At my next bonenkai 24 hours later, I was the only attendee under the age of 65. This was a rather reserved enkai for my iaido sensei, who’d received his 6th-dan black belt in December. All the iaido bigwigs threw him a party at $110 a plate in the big hotel in town, and we finished the evening with three resounding cheers of “banzai!” on his behalf. While the word more or less just means “hooray” in Japanese, it still felt very strange to join in.

My last bonenkai was with Wednesday Elementary, the mountaintop school, where I was surprised to receive Mr. Sticks' apologies through Mrs. Peel. While she initially suggested that I might get angry too easily, when I explained precisely what had happened and how many warnings I had given the guy, she recanted her criticism. Although she’d ostensibly taken it lightly, a few weeks earlier Mrs. Peel herself been felt-up by one of our teammates at a volleyball party, and given that the guy had warmed up with twenty minutes of trying to touch my vitals, I’d been just about ready to cut him in two. Mr. Sticks had the misfortune of performing an encore while I was still pissed off with the prelude.

A Piece of the North

Last year I went skiing in Hokkaido so I wouldn’t be depressed and alone while everyone else went home for Christmas. This year everyone ended up staying, but I’d already made plans to leave.


Every time I go to Hokkaido, I have a wonderful sense of being at home: big flat areas filled with nothing but trees, space between the buildings, and houses with chimneys. The half-melted snow that marked the region’s worst snowfall in 20 years just felt like typical Toronto winter weather.


Upon arrival, I decided to sample some of Hokkaido’s famous ramen. Following my Lonely Planet’s recommendation, I ended up in a shop in Susukino, a region of Sapporo that is so crammed with clubs, bars and “soap lands” that it is even famous where I live. I’d thought it couldn’t possibly compare to Shinjuku, where dirty, nasty-looking middle-aged men holler from dilapidated pink doorways and try to entice you within. But the difference, I discovered, is that Susukino does it all with style.

Susukino in Sapporo
Susukino in Sapporo

As if by city regulation, literally every hundred feet there was a “sandwich person” wearing a big pair of front-and-back placards with suggestive, but not entirely overt, pictures of semi-clad women on them. Most surprising was that these “sandwich people” weren’t sleazy-looking men, but ordinary-looking people in white parkas. In fact, many of them were girls. They looked like students on a part-time job. I have a feeling they probably were.


So, with the words “soap land” openly displayed in neon on the sides of the buildings and a twenty-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty standing proudly beside a gigantic illuminated image of Marilyn Monroe, there wasn’t the slightest suggestion of anything improper. In fact, there was almost a festive air to it all. I considered taking a photo of a group of 30-something Japanese guys casually discussing rates and options with one of the sandwich-girls, but it seemed like a stupid reason to get my camera broken.


Note that “soap lands” are perfectly legal in Japan, and since most Japanese businessmen won’t go near a place associated with the Yakuza, they’re generally legitimate establishments. As Bugsy in Shimoda puts it, the idea is that everybody’s just so slippery that they simply happen to slip on top of one another.

Odori Park
Odori Park as seen from Sapporo TV Tower

That night I wandered up the Sapporo TV tower to get a pleasant view of the remarkably symmetrical Odori Park. Then I headed back to the Keio Plaza Hotel, where I found that, in my one-year absence, they’d had massage chairs placed in all the rooms. What initially seemed like a stupid idea quickly developed into a daily post-ski ritual.


My first day of skiing was at Rusutsu, where I never had to wait in a lift line and joyous powder still abounded on the sides of the runs despite the poor snow conditions elsewhere on the island.


In the evening I was able to see Mt. Yotei, a monumental piece of rock that looms over the entire landscape, deservingly known as the “Fuji of Hokkaido.” Even with the top completely lost in cloud, the massive, symmetrical, striated base was stunning to behold.


After Rusustsu, I was scheduled to spend two days at a place called Kiroro, about which I’d heard good things. However, I hadn’t heard that it was reputed as a “romantic” location, complete with an opulent nouveau-Quebec hotel and its adjacent chapel. Silly me for thinking I should go there to ski.


Coming from Rusutsu, where an inexplicable half-kilometre shopping mall poses as the base lodge, Kiroro surprised me by presenting little more than a single octagonal room at the foot of its three peaks. Due to lack of snow, every single run that looked at all interesting was either closed or had three-inch shrubs sticking out of it. One of the three mountains was closed entirely, and in a classic twist of the knife, when the light faded at the end of the day, that single unusable peak was bathed in a holy beacon of light while all else fell into shadow. I began to wish I’d taken another day at Rusutsu.


But it was Christmas. That night I avoided the McDonald’s at which I’d ordered Christmas Eve dinner last year, and instead headed out to Otaru, where I anticipated good food and great music at the Otaru Beer Pub.


Unfortunately, because Sapporo seems to have the only trains in the entire country that are incapable of running on schedule, I arrived at the Otaru Beer Pub around 8:20 and was only able to catch the last few minutes of Palosiks playing their fantastic set while eating my inch-thick ham steak and “German potatoes.” But when I told the staff that I loved the band, they came out to chat afterwards.


The keyboardist had studied music in Nevada for 5 years and spoke nearly perfect English. According to him, the band had actually started out playing medieval European music (which I’m sure has a rabid fan-base in Japan) before moving on to its current eclectic mix of jazzy-Italian-Greek-whatever-from-wherever. They’re apparently there all year. I’d like to go back.


Japan has a tradition of producing and throwing away momentary celebrities at an incredible rate. As a result, there is a massive pool of “used-to-be” semi-celebrities who end up on embarrassing TV variety shows trying to make a few bucks off the vague memory of what little career they once had. There’s a regular show featuring one-hit-wonders trying to sing along to their original hits; if they don’t match within a certain percentage, a trap door opens and they’re deluged with flour or water.


I came upon the most disturbing manifestation of this phenomenon one night while flipping channels in Sapporo: Former Magazine Cover Girls vs. Former Singing Idols. Wearing cutesy, fashionable tank tops and shorts, the girls would start by maliciously catcalling one another before commencing to tackle, grab, pull hair and kick each other in the stomach until one of them submitted. Nasty.


The singing idols won.

On Christmas Day, I did two things to compensate for the disappointing ski conditions: first, I rented mini-skis and had a blast essentially skating downhill while pulling mad turns like I was on permanent fast-forward. Second, in lieu of my usual red boxers—the humour value of which seems to have abated over the years—I complemented my sunglasses with a big fuzzy Santa hat and bushy white beard, a combination that successfully prompted the best ski conversations I’d had the entire trip. I even finally met somebody who wasn’t from Osaka.


It’s such fun to scoot by and hear people automatically exclaim “Santa-san!”


I got a shuttle bus directly from Kiroro to the airport at the end of the second day. Last year, my return was delayed by a snowstorm. This year, it was delayed by rain. I don’t know how they ever schedule flights in and out of Sapporo.


By the time I got back to Tokyo, my knees, which had been in rough shape before the trip, were quite useless for most things other than walking across flat ground. They’d been getting progressively worse since my astounding relay performance in October, and it had come to the point that I couldn’t extend my leg to go down stairs without the sudden sensation that a hot iron was being shoved underneath my kneecap. Unable to sprint down the escalators in the stations, I missed the last trains that would have got me home, so I ended up having to sleep in a lovely business hotel in Mishima. There was a sign across the smoke-saturated pillow that read, “Don’t smoke in bed.”


A. pestered me enough that I actually went to a doctor the next day. However, as it turned out, the place I went to was not a hospital but some kind of specialist centre, and it cost me over $100 to get some dodgy-looking cream and eight minutes of questionable laser treatment. Two months later, my knees are still not back up to 100%. I probably shouldn’t have run that 3-k race last month… or gone skiing in Nagano the other weekend.


I may have to go to a real doctor soon.


Next >

Random Nagano ski resort
Some place in Nagano. I don’t recall the name, but I skied here.

February 2004