I wrapped up my errands and met friends early in the morning at Sendai Station on the 28th to take another trip out to Zhao. This time we'd be staying the night and the whole mountain would be open to us.
I should probably say now that I took only four pictures the entire time, and that of those, at least half were of me with snot all over my face. Because of this, I'm stealing pictures from friends who were kind enough to upload theirs to the interwebs. So, thanks to Nori, Kumi, and Sara.
Also, you can (and should) open this link to check out the blog post and lovely pictures belonging to the British lad who went along on the trip. At the very least, be sure to look at the photos, particularly the very first and very last ones on the post. If you still aren't motivated to have a peek, I'd like to let you know that I make a cameo in the post, just not by name directly. See if you can't guess who I am!
(Hint: I'm the person who took the newbie snowboarder down a black on his second run)
蔵王 Zhao - Take Two!
I went with a group of ten or so people, most of whom stemmed from the connections made back during Thanksgiving. The plan was to have three whole days of skiing with two nights of staying in the wonderful "onsen" (Japanese hot springs baths) town of Zhao that lives with the ski resort, but my plans for the new years cut me down to two days of skiing. I still got my fill though.
A good group of us went by bus, and Wade was good enough to get a panorama of the gang. It's definitely the sort of photo you want to click on to get the blown up version.
The trip was a completely different feel from my last time to Zhao, and boy was it terrific. All of it, that is, except...
Zhao Central Lodge
Now, as far as a place to sleep and being well located the place was terrific. The two person "onsen" (hot bath, to be shared with your fellow naked friends) was at least warm, if not roomy with all four of us fellas stuffed in. The buckets in the front room catching water from the leaky ceiling were easily overlooked when they let us store all of our luggage before check-in time, although one might think the buckets would be more effective were they changed when they became full.
The food at the lodge was... interesting. We had dinner there the first night and I cried and cried and cried. The flame that was suppose to cook my food in front of me died well before it did any of its work. In the morning even the Japanese lodgers were leaving things uneaten, but that wasn't an option for glutinous me. Still, it wasn't the worst thing in the world.
What was the worst thing in the world, however, was the old man running rentals. He successfully used two hours of our first morning getting everyone set up with the gear they needed, but that's not his best talent. Most impressive of all was his refusal to speak Japanese with anyone in the group, including our honest-to-goodness Japanese members. This wouldn't be a problem if not for the fact that his "English" (please note the quotes here) consisted of one word sentences. We had something like half a dozen fluent Japanese speakers and even a dolt like me who can at least get by, but instead, he pidgin'd us all morning. To be fair though, everyone knows white people can't understand Japanese, even if they can pretend to make the right sounds.
Later, he tried to charge an additional $12 fee on boot rentals to some of our snowboarders due to their non-Japanese sized feet. A champ, through and through.
When we finally got out of the rental gramp's sphere of influence and started heading to the hill we decided to stop for a moment and get a group picture. We asked the first chap walking by to take it for us, and damn my eyes if it wasn't the rental gran'pa. Well, he started to take the picture, but then pointed out that if we just moved over twenty feet we could instead have the picture of all of us with his lodge in the background. Just imagine what better memories that photo could become if we just had "Zhao Central Lodge" written above our heads in it, with forever fond memories of the strapping man.
Anyways, all the bad things that happen in Japan always turn into good things later on when you start laughing about them later, and this encounter has actually become one of my favorite bits from the trip, whine though I might. It always just turns into that much better of a story.
I learned just how little of Zhao I actually hit the last time around during this weekend. I found a giggling-ly fun black run on the second run of the day, and insisted my newby protege go down it so that I could enjoy it all the sooner. You can read about his point of view on that over on the British fellow's blog, but we already talked about it up top.
The laughter in that photo above comes from Eric's complete photo-pose failure that occurred one click of the shutter earlier.
Oh well, who wants to be in a photo with me anyways, right? Oh wait, Fumie does!
On the first day the group was predictably split up as we hadn't quite reached critical mass to continue our fusion. Fission?
Wait, we aren't nuclear physics! We're skiers, what am I saying? Anyways, a group of us made it to the top of the mountain, had lunch...
and went out to have some pictures taken with some great statues right outside lift / lunch building at the top.
A statue like that demands a group photo.
It was rather blustery at the top, but I'm such a man I took off my helmet to look lovely in a photograph.
I ended up getting myself split from the group, but had a thoroughly good time bombing down powdery blacks and finding good side-jumps on the blues. I never saw a Japanese person drop the powdery run that I kept going, which made me think: I never really saw anyone fall at the resort, but I never saw anyone impress me either. If you aren't falling, you aren't pushing yourself; if you're not pushing yourself, you're not improving; if you're not improving, you're falling to the dark side. Or, something like that.
Safe to say, my two days at Zhao changed my view of Japanese resorts. I couldn't even complain about not being able to ride good tree lines, because trees aren't nearly as hard to dodge as novice riders packed to an even greater density. I scared myself a few times, but I think I made the people I went by scream more often than I did it to myself.
Evenings In Zhao
A quick note - when you hear a "ya" after an object in Japanese, it usually means "place that sells xxx", so when we have "hon" (book) and "honya", you can safely assume "bookstore".
At the bottom of the gondola slope nearest our lodge was a magical, magical ramen place with magical, magical fruit. It was a magical night, so I hope you'll pardon my abuse of the word.
The owner and his wife were terribly friendly people, and when the crowd at their place whittled down to nothing but the group of gaijin (i.e. us) they became more than indulgent. You see, inside of their store, they make their own fruity flavored alcohols from 焼酎 (shouchuu), something like Japanese vodka.
The drinks themselves were potent enough, and I was originally fine with just having the two. But then came the indulgence - a magical bowl full of magical plums that had been plucked out of their jar.
The plums were beyond delicious, and were prized highly enough that it came down to a jyanken (rock paper scissors) match to see who would get to eat the last of them. This was much to my horror, as in my accumulated half a year of life in Japan, I had never won a single match of rock paper scissors. It's hardly a task that evades me stateside, but its almost as though you change the name and I lose any ability whatsoever of winning.
When I got that last plum, I was as delighted as the first plain-bellied Steetch to look down and see a star. Sara (the loser in the photo above) and I were enjoying our fruits so much that we ended up speaking to each other about how good they were exclusively in Japanese, which started cracking up the store owner and his wife, who had joined us near the table.
I could keep telling stories of the night, but its more fun to "pretend" it all dissolved away, and that we can only guess at what happened from the remaining artifacts. Come then, lets have our hand at anthropology.
When asked about my behavior the night before, I had only this to say:
Zhao isn't known only for its hill - it's a great place to soak naked with a bunch of other folk. On the second night we knew better than to go to the "onsen" within our own lodge, and so traveled down Zhao's main street a ways to go to a proper, outdoors bathing house. It. was. wonderfuls. Best of all was being able to roll around in the built up piles of snow right next to the outdoor tubs and jumping in and feel your skin melt off.
While the mountain, the snow, the onsen, the food, and the drinks were all great, it goes without saying that this trip wouldn't have been nearly what it was without all the people I went with. So, thanks to everyone who went, especially the people who put the whole idea together! You made my winter break the best it could've been.
After the second night it was off to packing and an early night so that I'd be ready for the bus the next morning that would take me on a string of connections to Kyoto, where I would be passing the new years with my host family from the summer.