Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Sashimi, slippers and snow...

So we're nearly four months into the year already and the New Year's resolutions from my last post are going really...uhm... not well? I've done NO exercise, been ever more vocal with both TV and computer at work, and have written precisely zero blog entries. But, dudes, is it me? What just happened to January, February and March?! I've barely finished stuffing my face with BBQ Christmas prawns and the darn Easter Crocodile* has been and gone!

* They had an Easter bunny here too, but he went for a swim and, well, you know... he wasn't seen again. They've named a swimming pool after him, though...

Although the 'no exercise' part of the above isn't entirely true, as in February, we over-excitedly dusted the cobwebs off our winter clothes and got ready to go skiing! And those of you who have ever been will know that one week skiing = all the exercise you'll ever need to do for the rest of the year.

Having seen the Australian snow already, we decided to pack everything up and go and see what Asia had to offer. Squeeeee - our first big trip together to Japan! When we first got to Australia, we were under the stupidly mistaken impression we'd be a whole lot closer to Asia than we had been in the UK and could do all our 'Eastern' travels whilst here. Uhm..... no. The only benefit with flying from Sydney to Japan is that, although it's a ten hour flight, there's only a two hour time difference - so no jet lag - a great boon if you're about to spend the next week on an intensive exercise program...

So off we went to the airport, full of pep and vigour. And wine, of course:

We had a bit of an 'incident' when we arrived in Tokyo. When I'd booked the flights, I'd clearly not paid enough attention, and we had only one hour to get off our international flight, collect our bags and board the domestic flight to our final destination, Niseko. It all might have worked, if only the damn international and domestic terminals weren't two different buildings separated by a 10 minute bus drive - which we discovered only after 10 minutes of following rather misleading signage in the international building. After a very tense, "We've already missed it, it's too late, alack and alas" bus journey, followed by an actual real-life 'mad dash' through the airport we made it onto our plane, mostly intact but very sweaty in our winter jackets.

The rest of the trip was far more relaxed* and we met our friend Sophie (who had flown from Perth to join us) with no problems. We got the coach the rest of the way to Niseko, which, to my complete delight (you'll see it later...) was drowning in the white stuff. 

* Except for the moment I ventured off to buy tissues at the airport and, having to guess what to get because I know NO Japanese, came back with what looked suspiciously like sanitary towels to everyone else. This caused hysteria for at least five minutes, until I opened them to find they were tissues after all.

The hotel we were in was pretty nice, although it had a smell of sulphur about it, due to the natural springs in the area (at least, that's what we hoped). Our room was a lovely apartment with a kitchen, living room and two bedrooms - one with the traditional tatami (rush-covered straw mat) and futon. As part of the hotel etiquette, too, you get an outfit to wear and two pairs of slippers - one for inside your room and one for inside the hotel. That's quite a lot of slippers for a person who spends most of her time at home walking around barefoot and treading on sharp things.

I have no clue why all the Japanese people kept laughing at us... We look chic, no?! I am sporting the 'inside the hotel' slippers at this point. The white slippers are in the 'in room' slippers.

And now to the question I know has been on your minds since I mentioned 'Japan'. The toilets. The weird mystery toilets of buttons. You thought toilets were for numbers one and two only, but in Japan there are numbers three, four and five as well.

Full disclosure - we had a go at all of them. And... yeah, it's a bit eye-popping at first, to press a button, hear a grumbling of machinery, followed by a dreaded pause, then to have warm water shoot out at your, ahem, bits and pieces. But after getting used to it, I have to admit I kind of missed it when we left! Something I was more ambiguous about was the heated seats - awesome, cos your little botty is cold in the freezing weather, but not-so-great because you can't quite shake the feeling that in fact it was someone else's little botty that 'warmed up' the seat before you...

Well, now we've addressed that cultural hot potato, it's onwards to more palatable topics! One of the big things we were looking forward to was sampling all the food in Japan, We love going to Japanese restaurants generally, so were keen to see what was on offer. The first thing to say is Japanese people seem to LOVE LOVE LOVE weird desserts and sweets. The airport is chock-full of them (or should that be 'choc'-full?!). We tried one which was a sort of wafer thing with thick honey in between the wafers and covered in sesame seeds. It was quite yummy, but... I wasn't convinced. We also bought what we thought was chocolate in the hotel's snack shop - only to discover it was some sort of bolognese sauce. The perils of relying on the beautiful packaging when you don't understand a single word written on it... We were on safer ground with the Green Tea KitKats we found - sounds gross, tastes delicious. Multiple bags of those were eaten - all in the name of keeping our skiing energy up, of course.

In fact, one of the best things about skiing is it leaves you bloody starving - erm, I mean with plenty of stomach space to sample to regional delicacies. But first, it was always time for a small aperitif, post-piste and preprandial. And we found the perfect place:

It was a little van containing the friendliest man ever (although to be fair, EVERYONE in Japan is the nicest person ever. I've never bowed and said 'thank you' so much in my life!), serving hot sake, mulled wine and plum wine. Almost every day, we brushed off the seats and settled down to re-live our day on the slopes.

Then it was off to the restaurants. We tried as many as we could in the week we were there (although must admit to one lunchtime where we went French and stuffed ourselves with crepes - savoury for main and sweet for dessert. And, yes, they were huge and, yes, we all ate two each). But otherwise, we tried to keep it traditional and ate yakitori (meat on sticks), sushi, sashimi, gyoza, dumplings, ramen, udon (all the noodles, really), and hotpot.

The smile of hungry people about to be fed...
One of the restaurants we went too - wooden booths all the way!

I could wax lyrical for a very long time about all the YUM*, but I'll tell you about the hotpot. Basically, you get a bowl of home-made broth brought to your table on a heater, followed by a selection of raw meats, fish and vegetables and a small hourglass.

* I will never forgive the school careers 'counsellor' for not telling me that 'food critic' was an actual career choice...

One of the plates of YUM to cook in the broth
With each type of meat/fish,  you get a guide as to how long to cook it for. Then you turn over the timer, grab a piece with your chopsticks and swish it about in the broth until it's done. Rinse and repeat for all the delicious things - and the bonus? You end up with an even yummier broth, full of the flavours from the veggies and meat juices.
My 'feed me NOW' face...
All in all, we ate very well for the entire trip, complementing the food with sake and plum wine, and following our main courses up with green tea ice cream where we could.

Another thing we had to try while we were in Japan was the onsen. These are thermal baths/hot springs, where you go to relax and get clean - in the nuddie. There are many rules to the onsen and most are single-sex. We did manage to find a 'mixed' outdoor onsen a few hotels down and went for our first experience there. When we arrived, we found out that because it was mixed, the girls had to pay for the pleasure of wearing a bright orange, linen 'dress' and Jan had to pay for a face flannel with which to cover his vitals. Obviously cameras are not allowed in or around the onsen, so the image of Sophie and I running through the freezing outdoor complex in our bright orange one-size-fits-none dresses to meet Jan, wading about in a pool, trying to hold a floating flannel to his privates is one you will have to conjure for yourselves.  Once in the pool though, it's lovely and warm  to lounge about in, and at one point it started snowing, which made it all poetic and beautiful and stuff.

Sophie and I ventured to our single-sex hotel onsen later in the week, This was slightly less 'touristy' than the mixed one. We immediately shamed ourselves by walking into the tatami-covered changing rooms in our 'inside the hotel' slippers, and incurring the wrath of a lady, who kept shouting 'NO SHOES' at us. Apparently slippers on the tatami is highly verboten - oops! Once inside the onsen, there are plastic stools in small, open shower cubicles where you go and wash yourself before and after going into the pools. You get a small hand towel whilst inside the onsen, which most people seem to wear on their heads, given the lack of pockets to carry anything in. We spent our time in the outside onsen, unsure of the rules, and slightly paranoid when a Japanese lady walked outside, took one look at us and walked back inside again. I do love a good hot spring though, and it's a great way to ease the aches and pains after a day of skiing.

And talking of skiing - which I realise I haven't done any of yet - it was awesome! So awesome, that words are just not enough - you should totally check out Jan's amazing video - behold the powder and weep! Then cheer yourselves up by watching us crash into trees! 

Niseko is famed for its powder snow and, boy, there was plenty of it. Sophie and I took lessons and both of us loved learning the new skills of off piste skiing, going through trees and into deep snow, while Jan also amused himself off the slopes:

We had heard rumours of a great volcano - Mount Yotei - opposite the mountain we were skiing on, but for three days it was so snowy we couldn't see it at all. Then came the sunshine, and.... wow.

So all in all, we had an AMAZING holiday in Niseko and will definitely be going back there for more! We learned loads on the slopes, and ate and drank loads off it - which adds up to the perfect skiing holiday if you ask me! 

Arigatou gozaimasu, Japan!