Mission: Conversational

I travelled two hours through sweeping snow-glazed forests and rolling hills to get to Rusutsu, one of the top ski resorts in Hokkaido. I was absolutely determined to talk to somebody there before I left.


Aside from the garish cartoon-style shops and the abominable Chuck-E-Cheese-like animatronic band that punctuated the half-kilometre walk to the rental shop, the place received my wholehearted approval. The prices were even generally cheaper than at Teine.


Upon arrival I immediately met a delightful couple from Hong Kong, and I had a great conversation with them while successfully navigating another, equally pleasant talk with the Japanese guy preparing my skis.


The catchphrase of the day was, “Oh! You speak Japanese!”


Me: “No! But thanks for thinking so!”


Sitting warmly on a bubbled quad lift as I travelled above one of three mountains overflowing with powder snow and littered with gentle blue square runs covered in big, soft moguls, I would randomly think back to everyone’s astonishment with my Japanese and exclaim, “I’m a superstar!” At other times, I would sing.

View of Rusutsu's western mountains
The mountains on the right are much bigger than they look

I was still on my own most of the day, but in the late afternoon I ended up in a crowd at one of the two night lifts and had a great talk with a twentysomething couple who couldn’t hide their amusement with my hat. Admittedly, the girl was from Osaka, and people from Osaka are famously outgoing, but it was great to finally get a reaction to the conversation piece on my head.


I even met the Hong Kong couple again, and the guy said that he, too, had been making random exclamations of wonderfulness all day. Sadly, they were heading back home in the morning, but we parted as if it were very likely that we would run into each other again next year.


The Hong Kong couple further recommended I try Niseko, the number one resort in Hokkaido. Rusutsu had a good selection of reasonably lengthy runs to choose from, but it really wasn’t as high as I’d hoped, and there wasn’t anything nearly as challenging as The North Wall. But Niseko was another hour down the road, and I’d only have about four hours to ski if I made the trip from Sapporo. I had the option, but I played it safe and decided to go back to Rusustsu the next day.

On the way back I ended up sitting beside the girl who’d led the bus to Teine Highland on Tuesday, and it eventually came out that she’d spent a year and a half leading tours in BC and Alberta. For some reason she never tried to speak any English, so we had an hour and a half conversation almost entirely in Japanese, during which the only words I had to fumble for were “canal,” “fog” and “angle.”


As we got into town, Guide Girl got the driver to let me off near Sapporo Factory, one of the few real “malls” to be found in Japan. It turned out to have a nice atrium, but it wasn’t exactly worth a special trip.


On Friday morning I woke up in a blizzard. The snow only abated long enough for me to get downtown before it kicked back in with steadily increasing force. The plan was to head up Sapporo TV tower to get the standard view of the city before heading to the airport for 2:10. However, after I saw the surprisingly diminutive Clock Tower—which is the symbol of Sapporo due to little more than the fact of its existence, as far as I can tell—I gave up on the TV tower because I couldn’t see beyond twenty feet in front of me.


You know the weather’s bad when the Japanese transportation system experiences a delay. When I got to the station at 12:05, the 11:48 train was still waiting at the platform. Mine arrived thirty minutes late. When we got to the airport at last, I elicited audible gasps as I stormed up three long flights of stairs with two stuffed bags on my back like parallel turtle shells, doing at least three times the speed of the escalator.


“Okay…” I huffed as I planted my feet on the summit, “Now I’m tired.”


In the end, my flight was delayed 70 minutes. Then 90 minutes. Then two hours. A few flights were cancelled entirely. But I was in no hurry. In fact, I fancied that it might be nice to be forced to spend another day in Sapporo. But I had no such luck.


As we flew into Tokyo, the dark, massive outline of Mt. Fuji stood before us, unchallenged in its domination of the crimson edge of the world.


Five hours later, I walked straight from the train station into a bar in P. Rock, where I caused a bit of a stir when I thunked my massive bags onto the floor, sat down, and waited for E and Bugsy to arrive. It was well after 11:00 p.m. by the time I had my first food since a 9:00 a.m. cinnamon roll in Sapporo. The bunch of us ended up heading out to karaoke and then to an all-night restaurant, finally catching a cab and sloughing into E and Bugsy’s place at 7:00 in the morning.


Getting off the bus outside my apartment early the next afternoon, I had a little over ¥1000 left from the ¥100,000 ($1200) I’d taken out before this whole trip began. I was actually quite pleased. Including shopping, skiing, dining and entertainment, I’d planned it out pretty much exactly.


Then I basically didn’t leave my apartment for a week.

Another New Year

On New Year’s Eve I sadly ended up with the same problem I’d had at Christmas: I didn’t know anybody holding a party I could join.


All the other gaijin were still away, and E and Bugsy had now gone off on their own vacation. All my Japanese friends had families upon whom I felt rude to impose, so in the end, I just headed out to two of the shrines downtown and hoped to catch somebody I knew.


Despite a poor beginning, it actually worked out much better than I could have anticipated. After failing to find anyone familiar and changing my mind three or four times as to which shrine I should attend for the final stroke of midnight, I ended up standing right in front of someone making comments in English. I turned around and said hello to a couple from Tokyo who had a cottage nearby. They insisted on having me over for dinner on Saturday.


Not only do they have a gorgeous cottage above my Wednesday mountaintop school, but after slogging through various teaching and freelance writing jobs since the late 1970s, the wife was now a professor in the Environmental Engineering department at a university in Yokohama, and the husband was the East Asian Editor for Kyodo News. He even told me how to get in touch with the Asian Editor of the Canadian Press.


I also gave them my dartboard. I haven’t told Socks yet.

Here & Now

So now everyone’s back, school’s starting again, and I’m hoping everything will keep itself intact so I can coast with relative ease through the next few months until the term ends in mid-March. Then I get two weeks off before I start this all over again.


Next year I’m debating whether I want to finish my tour of Japan with a few months in Tokyo… or maybe in Sapporo.


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January 2003