Cutting White Powder

Trip Start Jan 07, 2011
Trip End Jan 31, 2011

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Flag of Japan  , Hokkaido,
Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My short stay in Sydney over, I found myself about to board a Qantas 747-400 operating QF21 to Narita on time, at around 9:30pm. It had been clear for quite a while that this flight was very full and I had been holding on to a little hope that I would be able to score a free upgrade as a result. To my delight my boarding pass did not scan successfully and I was directed to a gate agent who handed me a new boarding pass showing that I had been upgraded to Premium Economy.

Onboard the aircraft it appeared as though all of the Premium Economy cabin were upgrades like myself, while part of the Business cabin was upgrades from Premium Economy. Everyone was beaming and commenting to their colleagues about how much better their upgraded class was. The Premium Economy experience was familiar to me as the seats were the same as those in Business on the domestic A330-200 that I had recently flown to Melbourne and the level of service was similar. While I was able to settle in with a welcome drink with alcoholic offerings, unlike domestic Business, I was not always referred to as “Mr Pacy” and only had 2 choices for dinner, so the in some aspects it was better and in others it was worse. The biggest plus however was the extra legroom – my upgrade was in the first row of Premium Economy and still a window seat, so I had tons of space (3 windows from my seat to the bulkhead); a view but still very easy access to the aisle. Sadly the entertainment system was the older international 747 offering, which was limited compared to the newer domestic A330 equivalent.

Arrival into Narita was on time, with our departure from Sydney delayed to ensure that we didn't need to circle for an unnecessarily long time waiting for the end of the nightly flight curfew to lift at 6am. Despite 2 nights without a bed I was doing well, benefiting from 5 hours of sleep in roomy Premium Economy. Waiting for the bags was a bit nerve-wracking – my bag didn't arrive with the priority tagged luggage, even though it was marked as “Business” thanks to it being checked through in Perth, but did eventually turn up.

Once officially in Japan I availed myself of an international ATM to load up with the local currency, some of which was immediately loaded onto my Suica card. From there my journey was simple – I tagged through the Keisei Railway fare gates and went down to the Narita Sky Access Line part of the platform to wait about 10 minutes for my train. Unsurprisingly my Narita Sky Access rapid service was bang on time and I was soon on a roughly 100 minute journey to Haneda Airport. This rapid service is only about 6 months old, being introduced with the new Sky Access Line, which provides a faster and more direct connection to Tokyo. My service was a particularly interesting operation as it was operated by a Keikyu Railway commuter train, running a rapid service over the Keisei airport line, the separately-owned Sky Access Line and Keisei Main Line before becoming a limited express on the Oshiage Railway line and finally a local on the Asakusa Subway line. Such a multi-operator and multi-system service makes the shared operation of our Circle Route bus service in Perth look extremely simple. Unfortunately I had to change trains (a simple cross-platform deliberate and waiting connection) to a Keikyu Airport Express service for the final part of the trip to Haneda, although some Sky Access services from Narita continue on the Keikyu Airport line as well.

Despite the number of lines and numerous other trains that my services had to fit in with I arrived at Haneda on time, making my trip run like clockwork. Who needs padding in an itinerary when services are this timely? I proceeded to Terminal 1 to check-in for my Skymark flight to Sapporo New Chitose Airport, which was a straightforward exercise. Although there was little information in English at the airport, the process was well documented on the airlines' website so there were no surprises. I noticed that they have self-serve check-in computers now but I was unsure if they had an English option so I opted for a manual check-in. Security was a breeze so I had a spare 15 minutes before boarding, which I used to grab some “Tokyo Banana Baumkuchen” to try and share with Mum and Dad upon our reunion in Sapporo.

The Skymark flight was pretty uneventful as I engaged in the Japanese tradition of sleeping on public transport. I may have slept on the way up from Sydney and on the train from Narita but I had a lot to catch up on and this helped me to blend in with the locals. Without realising it I had selected seat 5A which turned out to be the forward-most row before plane fuselage begins to narrow toward the nose so I had some extra leg room as the row in front was angled inward. This seat also benefited me in that it was on the correct side of the plane so that on take-off I had a great view of central Tokyo followed by the Tokyo Disney Resort. As we approached New Chitose the view was of tall clouds, icy waters and snow covered landscapes.

New Chitose was very snowed-in, much more so than expected. The runway and taxiways were covered in snow and ice but this did not seem to manifest itself as a problem for the aircraft. Baggage was off the plane quickly and I noted that Japan is in a way the opposite of the US when it comes to attitudes towards baggage on flights. Where in the US everyone seems to take as much as they possibly can in their carry-on luggage, to the point that it doesn't fit on board, in Japan people check-in the tiniest of luggage and carry nothing on with them. I'm guessing this is a reflection upon the standards of each country's ground handling staff as you're far less likely to have your baggage lost in Japan and it takes far less time to get to the carousel.

By the time I had made it to the JR Hokkaido ticket office and exchanged my exchange order for my Japan Rail Pass I had just missed the next Airport Rapid service into Sapporo and therefore had a 15 minute wait for the next one. This was no great imposition and had the benefit of offering me a greater choice of seating in the unreserved cars. To best suit my itinerary I had opted not to start my rail pass until the following day (10/1/11) and therefore used my Suica card to travel on the Airport Rapid service, foregoing the extra cost required to reserve a seat in the reserved car.

Everything was running to time and to plan until the extremely snowy conditions near Sapporo brought too much strain on JR Hokkaido's system. We waited over 10 minutes at Shin-Sapporo station, tantalisingly close from my goal of Sapporo Station, before being given clearance to proceed, albeit at a snail's pace, for the last leg into town.

Due to the delay Mum and Dad had been waiting for quite a while by the time I turned up but were still extremely happy to see me. They had been in Sapporo since late on Friday enjoying the local sites before I arrived to join them for a bit of a family reunion. The parents had identified a few places to grab lunch and snacks at the station so after a bit of wandering and sharing stories of our journeys so far we settled on some sushi from the on site Daimaru department store before going to the ticket office to sort out some reservations.

As Mum and Dad had arrived in Japan earlier I had given them the task of reserving some sleeping berths on the Twillight Express, Japan's longest single rail journey, from Sapporo to Kyoto (service continues to Osaka). As we were uncertain about the availability of cabins I had provided the parents with a list of options to explore if our preferences were unavailable. These options included taking the Hokutosei sleeper to Tokyo (Ueno) and then shinkansen to Kyoto and a combinations of regular day trains and shinkansens to Tokyo and then Kyoto with an overnight stop on the way. Thankfully, while our first preference (a suite with 3 beds) was unavailable, our second preference of a Royal (A class) room and a Economy single (B class) room was bookable. Mum and Dad had booked one of these rooms each and so we were now at the ticket office to change the Royal room booking to 2 people while I was in the single. The language barrier did prove to be a problem as they thought we wanted another Royal room or to have 2 people in the Economy room rather than the Royal but the JR assistance lady was able to eventually understand our request and translate this to the ticket office staff. Once this was sorted we also made reservations for regular trains that the 3 of us would be taking together, to ensure that we were seated adjacent to each other.

It did not take long to eat our sushi snacks and rug up for the cold and driving snow of Sapporo ahead of the walk a few blocks to our hotel. As the parents had already checked in and we were sharing the room we could head straight up, I could dump my luggage and we could keep going with the day. The first item on the agenda was my pilgrimage to MOS Burger. I hold the restaurant in the centre of Sapporo's Susukino district dear to my heart as my favourite of the chain so there was no question as to whether I would be making a visit, despite the scepticism of my parents.

Of course MOS Burger was appreciated by all of us, with its blend of traditional Japanese foods and the western burger concept. It would be fair to say that Mum and Dad were apprehensive in that the menus don't have any English so one must choose based on pictures, taking a leap of faith in what will be in the burger and what drink has been selected. I hooked Mum up with a fish and seaweed burger in a rice bun set and Dad with a traditional chicken teriyaki burger set, which they both enjoyed. I'm glad because MOS Burger is now on the parents' approved foods list so we'll hopefully get to visit some of the other restaurants later in our travels together.

We took our time eating as we were conversing until we decided to move on, into the underground Pole Town mall, where the parents showed me some of their first Japanese cultural experiences. Pole Town then led into another mall where we located Sapporo Sweets, a cafe that Mum and Dad had grown fond of during their few days in town. I was happy for the day to evolve into a lazy afternoon so we stopped in for some cake and coffee. The parents confessed that they'd been frequenting the cafe and had struck up more than 1 conversation with the staff, getting to the point of telling them that I would be arriving and had been to Sapporo before etc. I guess it's this ability to have friendly exchanges with strangers, along with their polite and friendly nature, that helps to make the Japanese people so friendly.

By the time we were done it was almost 4:30pm, which meant it was time for Sapporo's winter lights to be turned on for the evening. We surfaced a tad early so some time was killed in a nearby department store checking out what was on sale in their food department. When we re-emerged the lights were on, illuminating the trees of the nearby streets with a nice warm glow of thousands of little globes. We walked back to the hotel under the glow of the lights, commenting on the early hour of the darkness at this time of year.

A bit of a rest was had at the hotel before we descended to the ground floor for dinner at the internal restaurant called “Big Jug”. Mum and Dad had dined here previously and were impressed by their dishes, beer and prices so we shared a tasty and satisfying meal to cap off a half-day eating reunion. After the meal it took no time for me to fall asleep in the room, desperate to catch up on my sizeable sleep debt from the last few days. When sharing a room with the parents it's important to fall asleep first, before they start snoring as falling asleep during their symphony of snores is nigh impossible.

Day 2 in Japan started earlier than I would've liked, although it wasn't an unreasonable hour. I rounded up the parents and we made our way through the snow-covered streets, dragging our bags, up to Sapporo Station. We grabbed some pastries from the walk-in Danish patisserie (Mum and Dad were yet to try this fantastic Japanese institution) and headed up to the platform to catch our Super Kamui service bound for Asahikawa. The train was a standard tilting limited express EMU set, which Mum commented was more comfortable than she expected. We enjoyed our snacks but were off the train after only 50 minutes at Takikawa Station, where we had to change to a single car DMU local service to Furano. This latter leg took an hour and 15 minutes, winding its way up the valley, stopping at every little station on the way.

Our scenic trip through the countryside was over when we arrived at the junction station of Furano, halfway along the branch line heading north-south through the middle of Hokkaido. We were worried that Furano would be a smaller stop and thus with an absence of announcements in English we were checking each of the station signs along the way as they indicated what the next station would be, giving us advanced notice of when we would be approaching our destination. Although somewhat nerve-wracking we were still able to enjoy the scenery and notice the changes in development, such as the abundance of snow-covered farms up the valley and that no houses, even the detached ones, had fences, in contrast with other areas in Japan.

There were no resort shuttle buses at the station when we arrived so we opted to catch a taxi up through Furano town and past the older Kitanome ski area to our hotel, the New Prince Furano. The hotel is isolated on the side of the mountain, with the advantage of ski in and out access, several lifts, a snow park and craft village all on but the disadvantage of it being separate from the town and the restaurants and bars of the Kitanome area.

Arriving just after noon meant that we were room-less as check-in is not until 3pm. By chance our relatives who had arrived at Furano from Perth the night before; my aunt, uncle and 2 cousins on Mum's side, had just come in off the slopes for their lunch break so we met up with them and travelled up the mountain on the Furano Ropeway for lunch. The Ropeway was a Swiss CWA 3-cable (2 load-bearing) design built locally by Nippon Cable, featuring 2 gondolas travelling in opposing directions every 5 minutes. Being a cable car/gondola system rather than a ski-on/off chairlift the Ropeway operates year round and is able to take non-skiers like us 3 recently-arrived members of the family back down the mountain.

At the top of the Ropeway there is one self-service restaurant with about 10 dishes that are ordered and paid for on a vending machine. The kitchen prepares the meals as per the tickets printed by the machine and then calls out the order number when they're ready. This was a good opportunity for my cousin Emily, who learns Japanese at school, to educate the family in Japanese numbering so that we could hear our orders being called. It helped that we were seated near the kitchen so could see the meals for which the numbers were being called.

The meal over and a short catch-up had, we parted our relatives and watched them ski down the mountain. They returned quickly on the closest chairlift so that we may see them ski down again before we too descended, albeit on the Ropeway. We still had time to kill before our 3pm check-in window opened so we explored the non-skiing options in and around the hotel. This included an exploration of the “Ningle Village” crafts village, with a cafe break, and a look at what was on offer at the snow park and a glimpse of what the night snow park may have to offer us after dark.

With a fuller grasp of what was on offer in and around the hotel we returned to the reception a little before 3pm and were able to check in and get access to our room. As we'd advised the hotel that we would be visiting our relatives we were given a room on the same floor, which obviously made visiting each other and organising things together easy. When they returned from their after lunch skiing we were able to plan our evening and the following day's activities over a couple of vending machine beers and snacks.

Everyone rested until 5:15pm, when we headed down to the foyer to wait for the shuttle bus into Furano. It had been decided that we would have dinner in Furano this first night instead of being captive to the hotel's restaurants and prices and since everyone had decided to leave the decision making to me we were headed to an okonomiyaki place near the station. Nobody else had heard of let alone eaten okonomyaki (Japanese pancakes) before so this made for a great cultural sharing experience. My prior encounter with okonomiyaki was it being made by the restaurant staff in front of me on the hotplate in the centre of my table. Here they left the making up to us, giving us guidance as to what to do with what we were given and when to take action, such as stir or flip.

Between the 7 of us we had 2 tables and 4 okonomiyaki pancakes cooking, with seafood, meat and vegetable varieties coming along well. To add to the excitement and pander to my tastes we also ordered takoyaki (octopus balls) and it soon became apparent that we would need to cook these ourselves too. Hot plates with half-sphere dimples were on the tables and the general assumption was that doughy balls would be given to us for heating and perhaps cooking in the dimples, but it wasn't that easy. Batter was poured into the dimples and surrounding plate area, with ingredients like the octopus pieces dropped in. Halfway through the cooking the staff handed us skewer-like utensils that we had to use to roll the half-balls in the dimples to create full spheres and cook the other sides of them. Although the staff managed this easily it proved to be quite a task for us, resulting in roughly spherical but pretty munted things cooking in our dimples. Thankfully the staff came around and cleaned up our balls so that they did become just that for the last stage of their cooking process. I'm proud to say that all the food we cooked ourselves tasted great, although that's probably more a testament to the chefs who prepared the ingredients and the lashings of sauce, seaweed and dried fish shavings that we applied to the finished products.

As luck would have it we just missed one of the shuttle buses back to the hotel and, faced with a 1 hour 20 minute wait for the next one we walked in the now extremely cold weather to the station, where we snagged 2 taxis for the trip back up to our isolated accommodation. Everyone seemed to enjoy our different and hands-on dinner, which we discussed over some ice creams bought from the hotel's convenience store prior to bed time.

My first full day in Furano began with breakfast with the extended family in the banquet hall on the lowest floor of the hotel. This hall echoed the hotel in general by presenting itself as dated, looking like it was built in the 1990s. Being Japan the hotel was definitely clean and well maintained, but it did a bit of an upgrade. The breakfast itself was the standard half Japanese and half Western affair, but easily not the best that we'd had. Dry pancakes are always a travesty.

What does one do at a ski resort? Ski, of course! Thus I headed up to the ski hire shop and arranged the use of a set of skis, boots and poles for 2 days. My relatives are keen skiers and have made a tradition of going to Japan each northern winter these past few years so this was my opportunity to ski with them. Sadly Mum and Dad didn't feel confident to ski or snowboard so after farewelling myself and my aunt, uncle and cousins at the chairlift they headed to the snow park so that Dad could try “closs-country skiing”.

While I've skied only a handful of days before my relatives have had a lot more experience so I was appreciative of their support, guidance and patience while I reacquainted myself with the sport. We started on the green runs lower down the mountain, before heading higher and moving onto some red run sections as my confidence increased. My cousins branched off to do their own thing while my aunt and uncle accompanied me and helped me to develop my skills further. I'm glad they did and can appreciate that they would've been able to do their own thing and try harder runs if I wasn't there so I thank them for their sacrifice. A highlight of the morning's skiing was a trip up on the Ropeway which offered us the higher slopes with a bit of fresh powder, which is a thicker, less controlled skiing surface that we all enjoy.

We caught up with Mum and Dad for lunch at the hotel, where we shared stories of our respective mornings – me with my minimal stacking on the snow and the parents with Dad's exhausting cross-country skiing effort. During lunch the group decided that it would be fun to try snow mobile driving so we began to make enquiries of where we could go to drive a decent distance that had 7 vehicles available. Unfortunately we could not find a suitable operator so we decided instead to head down to the snow park at the hotel, which had 3 vehicles that we could drive on a 4km course. We took it in turns to do our laps of the course so that everyone had a go and most of us had a great time. I managed to get around almost 2 times as I relieved Mum early on in her turn as she wasn't enjoying it. This was my second go and I was more confident, hitting bumps and corners at speed and bouncing all over the place. Both my runs (1 with cousin Rob and another with Dad) were great fun.

The sun sets early in Furano in winter so after the snow park my aunt, uncle and I decided to head back out to the slopes to enjoy the remaining light. Mum and Dad joined us in our ascent on the Ropeway but were unable to get out at the top as the return movement was the last of the day. As expected my skiing ability had peaked earlier in the day and as I became increasingly tired it got worse. Nevertheless we continued on as we were all having fun, enjoying a bit of night skiing from 4pm until almost the end of our lift pass validity at 5pm.

The Kan Kan Mura “Night Fantasy” nighttime snow park opened at 5pm so we walked over to see what was on offer. Instead of paying for each activity individually there was a single entry fee which entitled us to ride the tube course, access the ice bar and walk down the snow sculpture path. We all enjoyed these activities despite the cold, although I was disappointed to see Dad exceed my tube run distance record on his last run.

Tired and satisfied we all enjoyed a vending machine happy hour in our room before biting the bullet and going to the Main Dining Room on the top (12th) floor of the hotel for dinner. While not cheap, the “Grand Prix” set meal that most of us had was delicious fine dining that we didn't feel ripped off about. It was beautifully accompanied by the local Furano white wine, which we had discovered at the hotel's convenience store and enjoyed during our DIY happy hour.

Our second and final full day in Furano followed a similar format to the first, starting with breakfast in the Banquet Hall ahead of us skiers hitting the slopes. Mum and Dad were taking advantage of the hotel's free bus tour to surrounding tourist ventures. The tour took up the entire morning and allowed them to visit the local winery, lavender farm, sweet shop and art gallery run by a prominent local contemporary artist.

Although the day before was the day after a public holiday the slopes were not at all busy, but this next day was even quieter. There were times when we would be the only group making our way down the run. After a warm up run on the lower pistes we made the call to go beyond the top of the Ropeway, to the highest part of the resort and take the red run down. The only other option from the summit was a black run that, while some commented looked “easy”, nobody was game enough to try. While we hyped the red run at the top of the mountain we were humbled by a cross-country skier who was ascending the run with apparent ease. This person was not only climbing it but he was doing so parallel with the run, not zig-zagging his way up!

We all made a successful descent from the summit and headed for the link run that would get us to the Kitanome ski area. This run flattened out for a bit which was an inconvenience for my cousins who were snowboarding but it made up with some steep descents after that. Once across in the Kitanome area we found it to be full of ski groups, which crowded the sometimes narrow runs through the trees. Nevertheless we managed to navigate around them and beat them to the single seat chairlift for the long climb back up. This was my first single lift, which was an amusing reminder of a bygone era when the seats were made of wood and no safety bar was required.

From the top of the Kitanome area we made our way all the way to the bottom, taking advantage of the wide open space on the lower runs to pass under the Kitanome quad lift and gondola. At the bottom it was time for a break and a snack and it is then that I discovered the pancake drink. It was a can that came warm from the vending machine and tasted like pancakes with maple syrup and creamy whipped butter, but didn't burn like it would if one drank maple syrup.

Time was catching up to us so we rode the quad and connecting twin lifts back up the Kitanome area, commenting that the music in the Kitanome area was “better” than the area near our hotel. So far we had heard a few Pet Shop Boys songs and the soundtrack had just changed to Michael Jackson. We skied across the mountain to the link twin lift, which would take us back to our area, and sat down to enjoy a ride on what I have now dubbed the “Michael Jackson Lift”. It is an odd feeling to be the only ones on a chairlift high up a mountain in a foreign country and be listening to trademark Michael Jackson songs blaring across the empty wilderness.

Lunch was back at the hotel, where Mum and Dad shared their experiences from the morning's tour and we ran through our route across the mountain. After the kilometres that we had clocked up we were all a bit tired so we had a 45 minute break in our rooms before my uncle and cousin Rob came by to see if I wanted to hit the slopes again. In the meantime the weather had deteriorated with blustery snow and Mum and Dad had decided to hit up the hotel's coin laundry.

Undeterred by the weather the 3 of us headed up on the quad lift, where we caught up with some kids my cousin's age from Queensland (I hope their house hasn't washed away in the floods) that my cousins had befriended earlier. As such we now had a group of 5, which made 2 good runs through the fresh powder on familiar runs. I really enjoyed these runs as I knew the piste and it had a solid, smooth groomed base but fresh powder to enjoy.

We retired at 4pm and made our way back upstairs, where my parents were finishing the laundry (thanks for including my clothes in the loads guys). I returned my ski gear just before 5pm when it was clear that I was not getting any more use out of them and then we had our familiar greater family DIY happy hour and reflected over the deliberate crossing of our paths these last few days.

As we had enjoyed the previous night's dinner so much we returned to the 12th floor to try a different set menu and watch the few skiers still on the mountain kicking up the fresh powder as they made their way down in the driving snow. Dinner's “All About Furano” set meal was delicious and a fitting end to our stay in and around the town.
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