Hakuba Trip

For those of you who don’t know, snowboarding is big in Japan.  Actually, both skiing and snowboarding are fairly big in Japan, but snowboarding seems to be all the hype these days.  From what I can figure out, skiing is the traditional winter activity most of the adults in Japan grew up doing.  Did I mention yet Japanese people love them some tradition?  So, there are still a lot of skiers out on the hills, including many 4 year olds that look like they could do a slalom run at the olympics.

There’s another thing Japanese people love them some of too, however:  being hip.  Really, this pertains to the youth of the country but boy is this allure strong.  Many youth are desperate to appear cutting edge cool all over Japan.  In Tokyo, they have taken this to a near-syndrome like addiction.

Which explains this, I guess.

Don’t even get me started on double eyelid surgery.

Sometime in the recent past snowboarding caught on and now tons of teenagers and 20 somethings can be seen taking to the slopes many nights of the week and on weekends wearing snow pants around their knees, beanies that seem to mimic rap videos from 1998, and for the girls giant fake eyelashes that you have to weave your way around while going down the hill. There are many TV commercials that include snowboarding as part of the ad for no reason other than it makes the ad exciting or cool. I guess the fact that snowboarding is fun as hell doesn’t hurt to add to the number of participants.

Because of all this love for winter sports, and the close access of good ski resorts, people in Japan are keen to spend their weekends travelling the country for some good skiing or snowboarding fun. Perhaps the biggest place for this is a place called Hakuba.

Hakuba is located in the northern part of Nagano prefecture and hosted parts of the 1998 Nagano games. The name is actually the name of the tiny village as Hakuba hosts something like 10+ ski resorts. It has some of the most challenging runs in the country and is also a great place for novices to come to learn how to ski or snowboard. It’s also a very popular destination for foreign visitors to come for a skiing vacation. From what I’ve heard there are many people who will travel to Hakuba from Europe just for the weekend to get in some skiing. Nuts.

This past weekend I tagged along with one of my 5th grade teachers, his family, and a few of his friends for a trip to Hakuba. We stayed in a nice little bed-and-breakfast type place with a friendly older couple who ran it. I guess it’s called a “pension”, a name that is widely used throughout Europe and other parts of the world, or so I read. I’ve never heard of a “pension” before in my life so I am thinking the word is not used in America. I was a bit confused about what this whole pension deal was and had to do a bit of googling to find out what type of place we were headed to.

Somehow the guy knew all about Minnesota sports teams. He even knew about the American Football team and their current season. Needless to say, I was a bit shocked at that.

My teacher had said his daughter was really excited about the opportunity to speak English with a real living foreigner. I originally thought she was a University student studying English but it turned out she was a high school student who had English classes. So, her English level wasn’t quite as good as I was expecting, but it was certainly better than I thought it would be for a high school student. Either way, she ended up being far too shy to converse much on Saturday. Eh, that’s expected. On Sunday she gave snowboarding a try and as she was busy trying not to break her tailbone we spoke primarily in Japanese. Luckily, as I helped demonstrate a few of the basics she warmed up a bit and seemed to be much more open to talking to me by Sunday afternoon. This included doing away with English altogether and just speaking Japanese to me, which I really didn’t mind.

Another notable standout was one of the teachers that came with. She teaches P.E. at an elementary school a bit south of my town but still in the same valley. Her personality is quite unlike most Japanese people. She’s animated, talkative, loud (even though she barely had a voice due to a 3 week long cold), very sporty, and even a bit butch. Also, at 29 years old she’s single, which alone is just about enough to boggle many a Japanese person’s mind. She was the snowboard master and ended up teaching Yumi (teacher’s daughter) and Miyuki (another teacher who came with) for their first snowboarding lesson.

It ended up being a great weekend. One of the things I really want to do while I’m here is spend my time around Japanese people who don’t know English, and I got to do that a bunch on this trip. I got to learn many a good Japanese word, some youthful slang, and recognized some more guyish speakisms I’ve probably heard a bunch but have just now caught on to.

The only downside to the trip was that I took a few big spills. One, which I ended up landing on my shoulder and ribs, was somewhat bad. It was my first snowboarding fall that had me “unnhhh” as I hit, groan as I slowly rolled to my back, and then scoot off to the side to lay there and wonder how long before I feel like getting up again. Ironically, it happened on one of the flatter parts of the entire mountain. In fact, every one of my falls happened on flat areas, indicating that I need to practice 2 things much more: going straight (which apparently is a big problem for many people on a snowboard), and turning while moving slowly. The only problem I had with Hakuba was that some of its runs were very narrow. Think 10 feet narrow. On one side you had the hill/mountain wall, on the other side a drop that basically was the side of the hill/mountain. I have no idea how far down the drops were. I didn’t want to find out. You can see where not being able to turn, even though it was on flatter portions where I struggled, would be a problem.

Anyway, that was Saturday. It’s now Wednesday and my shoulder is still sore. So, this means that once again I’ve missed ju jitsu and fallen out of any rhythm I tried to establish. This is a frustrating trend.

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