As I sit here on my last day of work; walls devoid of artwork, cupboards scrubbed clean, gear washed and packed away for next season and the steady ticking of the clock until the 4 kids arrive for the concluding day of ski school; I can reflect on the final weeks of the season and my time here in Niseko as a whole.
Spring is now in full force, the roads are devoid of any snow, snow banks have been trucked away to melt in the hot springs and the foundations of new developments have already sprung up in this rapidly Westernising town. The mountain is now running a skeleton lift crew, as most of the lifties are farmers so return to their crops come the spring. I haven’t actually been up the mountain for a couple of weeks, the heavy slush snow, melting hillsides and limited runs aren’t the memory I want to take away from the once powderful Niseko slopes. This also means that my final ski lines here in Niseko will be down the mighty Mt. Yōtei that overlooks the town.
Inaccessible by ski lifts the only way up the 1,898m is to hike it. A super last minute frantic frenzy of organisation, my lovely boss giving me an extra day off and the scouring of rentals for some touring skis left us with an epic ride crew and a group of guides willing to take us up to the summit.
Setting of bright and early on a super clear and sunny Monday morning, we drove as close to the base of Mt. Yōtei as is possible. We geared up, attached the skins onto our skis and started on the track through the woods that takes us to the base of the climb. I had never toured on skis before and when I had to ask the rental guys how I switched the bindings into walking mode they thought me slightly crazy to be attempting Yōtei on my first time. In fact the majority of our crew had never done any hiking in ski/snowboard gear, so we were certainly going for the sink or swim approach.
The meander up gentle gradients was lovely and I was thinking this will be a breeze, the skis slide forward nicely then grip as you push against them slowly propelling you forward. At first a very weird sensation to not be sliding back on them, but one that I quickly got used to. We stopped after about an hour at the base of the main climb to take on water and appreciate the scale of what we were about to hike.
The hike up the face of Yōtei was probably one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever done. The gradient is constant and at its steepest is around 50%, the face was fairly icy lower down and the skins were slipping when pressure was put upon them. It is a fairly terrifying thing looking down a semi vertical slope that you’ve climbed hundreds of metres up, having to put in a turn as you slowly zig-zag up and as you put all your weight on one ski at a twisted angle finding the resistance going and you starting to slip down the mountain. We managed to skin about a kilometre up the face, before the gradient became too much and the climbable face too narrow to put in big zig-zags. From here we strapped the skis to our bags and boot packed up higher. Climbing in ski boots with a fairly heavy pack on was pretty tough work, but better than slipping down every turn. We reached the false summit after about 4.5 hours and rested on the flat on looking down on what we had scaled.
The final climb up to the summit turned out to be the hardest part of the day. With legs already slightly drained we set off to try boot pack up the final assent only to find that the sun had softened the snow too much and we were sinking in the our waists on each step making it physically draining and putting too much risk on collapsing into a deep section of snow. We put the skis back on and continued our slow trudge upwards. The snowboarders were having a more successful time on the climb than us, with their large snow-shoes allowing them to hike up the entirety, albeit with boards strapped to their packs the whole way. The final assent was tough, with the slushy snow meaning skis slipped out from beneath me, and I must confess I did throw a mini tantrum part way up after the umpteenth fall and trickles on blood running down my hands from all the micro tears that had been made by the ice.
Reaching the summit was an incredible feeling though. We literally had the most perfect weather day for our hike. It was windless even at the peak, the sun shone all day long and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We spent a good amount of time at the top, taking in the views out over Niseko, the huge crater in the centre of the volcano and drinking our celebratory beers. We then got the reward of the ride down. We hadn’t done the hike for the epic powder lines on the way down, we’d done for the achievement of summiting it. That being said the top section of the volcano’s face was lovely soft snow, that allowed you to throw in huge carve turns down it at incredible speeds. Our legs were absolutely burning by the time we reached the lower section and when the heavy lower snow started sucking the skis in I did go down on one turn simply as I’d run out of energy to push through the turn . On arrival back into Niseko we looked back upon Mt. Yōtei and could see our lines down the front face of the volcano, which was a pretty awesome feeling. They were still there the next morning as I walked up to work with no snowfall to cover them up.
That was my last ski ride here in Niseko, I feel it’s a pretty good way to leave here, with my last lines being down the volcano overlooking the town. Since then all my days off have been spent away from Niseko. I wanted to get my Chinese visa sorted before I set off travelling so that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting it organised in Tokyo. I went along with James bright and early to pick up his mate Sam from the airport then they dropped me at the embassy where after some very broken English conversation, an hours wait and a bit of paperwork I was told to come back the middle of next week to collect my completed visa. It was a very rainy day out in Sapporo, so after successfully finding Ramen Alley we drove back to Niseko.
On my other day off we drove down to Hakodate to check out this European influenced town. When I had to make up my Japanese trip itinerary for my visa application it was one of the places I said that I was going to go, so I was looking forward to actually visiting. We arrived at the town the night before and went out for some dinner with Ellie a pro powder friend who also happened to be in town. After that a crazy night ensued, consisiting of two beers in an empty bar, before we all realised we were exhausted so went to bed, very different from our big night out when we all went to Sapporo earlier in the season.
The next morning we headed out to check out the fish market by the coast. We went from seeing probably the most authentic Japanese thing to date to most Western of chains in the space on ten minutes. A tank of squid where customers fished out one, before it was sliced up so fast that it was still alive, and served as Sashimi where customers ate it with the tentacles still moving. As tempting as it was to try this, it was still 10am and instead we got a coffee, although from an awesome hidden away Japanese coffee bar where the guy used about 5 pans to make our coffee, not from the terrible Starbucks that was sat on the shore. We’ll try find some semi-live squid to eat down in Tokyo.
The shoreline of Hakodate just along from the fish market is probably the most gentrified part of Japan I’ve seen. The old warehouses have been converted very stylishly and boutique shops sell ‘authentic trinkets’, (crap), at hugely inflated prices. From here we drove up into the old town and saw some of the European influences in the architecture with the old town hall a massive yellow wooden building that definitely stood out against the typical Japanese architecture and the big traditional temple that was located five minutes down the road.
We then set off on a fairly long coastal drive down to Matsumae down on the far Southern tip of Hokkaido. From here we could see across the coastal channel to mainland Honshu in the South. The castle itself was alright, we were a couple of weeks before the cherry blossom would come out so it was all still looking a bit barren, but we checked out the inside and wandered the grounds as we had made the extra hours’ drive to go see it.
The next day we drove out back to Sapporo to collect my visa and for James and Sam to fly off on their travels. Annoyingly the visa office closed at midday, something I hadn’t realised at all, so I had to spend the night with the guys in Sapporo and rush back to work the next day to arrive before lunch. We spent the evening at a super cool sports/arcade complex, where after paying the entry fee, which I managed to get at student price by showing my SkiJapan staff pass, we had access to most sports you can think of as well as loads of arcades. I turned 24 sat in a full body message chair, a heavy contrast from turning 23 when I had just arrived in Brisbane and was relaxing with Lilly and her friends out by their house.
The next day we went out for my birthday down to a non-Japanese Asian restaurant down in Kutchan that did great food at insanely cheap prices. We spent the rest of the evening back at one of the houses drinking as there is a limited number of bars left open here in Hirafu and I had a box of alcohol accumulated from people leaving my house that needed to go! The past couple of nights I have just been getting ready to leave, sorting my paperwork and what I’m sending back home. The town is now super quiet, with lots of my close friends having already left, and I’m looking forward to getting back out onto the road. There’s a lot of people that will be converging in Tokyo whilst we’re there, so looking forward to checking out the nightlife. As well as all the culture, obviously..