Conichiwa from Japan!
Wow. Wow. Wow. Japan officially has taken a place in my 5 favorite countries. Each area I visited was unique and had its own flair. Rushing around, I was able to visit Osaka, Tokyo, Hokkaido and Okinawa. Some of the fun was planned, like snowboarding, but most of it was just a result of following my curiosity into crazy situations.
It started snowing just moments after I landed in Osaka, Japan’s 3rd largest city and I was unsuccessful finding a jacket in Taiwan, so it was still high on my list here. But until then I would just wear as many layers as I could. Near to my hostel was Tsutenkaku Mishrian tower, featuring amazing views of the city, especially at sunset (conveniently warm and inside). It is also adjacent to Shinsekai, an area famous for visitors. I went to a theater where I was told would be a show, but instead they were trying to get me to karaoke. Which I’m generally not against, but in Japan they are private rooms, so to karaoke alone would be pretty sad.
As I walked the streets, thinking about how badly I wanted a jacket, and maybe even a panda suit for snowboarding, I noticed two women in onesies (a cow and a chipmunk) in a restaurant. They were filming it and laughing, so clearly I went in. I warmed up with some sake and started chatting with them and the crew and they are actually a team from Thailand, Japan Sud Sud, filming all over Japan because of how popular Japanese food and culture are in Thailand right now.
On the walk back to the hostel, I noticed a sign for darts and walked into a clearly little known darts bar. I decided to try the Japanese whiskey I had heard such great things about and play darts with the locals. The whiskey was great and their darts were better. I’m going to guess it was the former that led me to have a turn with three bullseyes. No one in the bar spoke English, but they did know and repeat the phrase that the darts machine often blasted, “nice one!”
Tokyo is the biggest city in the world. But you wouldn’t know it as you walk around. The streets are so clean and organized, it lacked the chaos and hectic energy I expected. And there were bikes everywhere. My kind of city. I really wanted to do real-life Mario Kart, but because the karts are driven on the road, you have to have a Japanese license or international permit, neither of which I could get in a day’s time.
One day I walked 18 km around the city, just taking it in. I started at Shibuya Station, home to the busiest intersection in the world. The walk signal for every direction goes live at the same time and madness ensues as everyone crosses in every direction. This was both nuts and the first place I saw other white people in the country.
The first thing I will do when I visit Tokyo again is start a photography project covering street style. Everywhere I turned I was so impressed with Japanese women and their style. They are everything – lace and leather. Delicate and tough. Dresses and Doc Martens. All mixed together, or separate. Every single woman looked awesome and mostly because they just own the style they are rocking. In my next life I hope to be a Japanese woman in Tokyo.
I ended my exploration in the Harajuku district of the city. This meant shops filled with cartoon characters and fun dresses. Girls walking around with amazing makeup. Crepe shops with “A Spoonful of Sugar” playing into the streets.
Tokyo is officially added to the list of cities that I can see myself living in. Maybe I’ll scope places out when I come back for baseball season with an international driver’s license in hand.
Hokkaido is the island in the North housing Sapporo and some of the world’s best snow. Being a recent convert to snowboarding, I knew no winter visit to Japan would be complete without checking to see if the rumors were true. Niseko is a few hours from the airport and houses Niseko United, a massive mountain home to four ski resorts. I’ll decide in a post later this week where the better snow is – Japan or Colorado.
I was feeling nervous before the first day. I am a few months behind the start of the season in Colorado and if I’m honest with myself, I didn’t push myself very hard last season. So with that and the rumors of Japanese snow, I was worried it was going to be like starting again. It was not. I started on Grand Hirafu, which is a really open and approachable mountain. No surprise moguls and lots of options for where to go. The top of the mountain wasn’t open because of the wind, which was fine. I went as high as I could go and it was too cold for me.
The park at Grand Hirafu was also really approachable. I’ve never done jumps on purpose before and watched as a group was getting lessons, learning and practicing a small jump. I decided that it wasn’t enough of a dare to just snowboard in Japan, but I needed to try a new skill. Jumps it is. I kept waiting so no one would be around, and off I went. I fell in about 90% of my attempts, but I also landed 10%, so I’ll call it a win. I took a quick break and recruited a guy from the lodge to go back and night ride with me. He is about 900,000% better than me, which was great to be pushed. And, sorry Keystone, but it was amazing to night ride without having to brave the Icy Hill of Death to get a full run.
The alarm came early the next day to get up for first tracks. I was a little sore and so satisfied with the day before I thought about just sleeping in. I am so glad I didn’t. It was a warm, bluebird day with visibility for miles. The top of the mountain was open for the first time in 3-4 days, so it was covered with fresh and fluffy snow. When I managed to stop taking pictures of the view, I hit some of the deepest, steepest and toughest terrain I have every touched, but when the snow is knee to waist deep, everything turning to falling is exponentially easier.
Okinawa was my last stop and I was surprised looking out the window of the plane as we landed – it looked just like landing in Samoa or Tonga – islands and tropical waters. It was sunny and warm and right after we landed I switched back into flip flops and all was right with the world. As I made my way through the airport, I noticed that there were cameras assembled, preparing for what seemed like a special arrival. I set my bags down and asked around and with little English ascertained that it had to do with baseball.
I got closer and asked one of the men in a uniform top if he spoke any English. His lips said yes, but the rest of our conversation said no. It didn’t matter – it is shocking how easy it is to talk baseball without speaking each other’s languages. The DeNA Baystars were arriving for spring camp, and for the first time would be accompanied by their new manager, Venezualan Rodriguez (whom all the excitement was about). I met the parents of the club’s #1 catcher. I met the mayor who was there to welcome the team, also a former catcher. I showed them my baseball tattoo. They put a Baystars jersey on me to help welcome the team.
Literally less than an hour after I was writing about not being in this area during baseball season, I was in a jersey, with the mayor and other notables, welcoming a team for spring camp. Life is funny like that sometimes.
I spent my time in Okinawa walking the streets in the rain, getting a bit lost and hoping to find cherry blossoms. I knew I was a few weeks early, but figured it didn’t hurt to keep my eyes open. We’ll add that to the baseball season list as well.
For now it’s off to the Koreas.