This year we thought we would try a last-minute powder chase to Japan. Instead of scheduling a trip, we would watch the weather and book on the spur of the moment, based on the snow forecast. Since we both work online and have no kids, it sounds simple, right? Not exactly.
The planning had to start five months ago, when we pre-packed all our ski clothes and equipment and left them marked in our storage unit in Utah. To activate the plan, the first step was to call my storage guy and ask him to FedEx the bags to Japan. That went smoothly—thank you, Matt! Next, weather watch. In my mind I was thinking of the end of January, but all of a sudden a storm popped up on the horizon. Seven days of non-stop snowing, averaging a foot day. Perfect—but where are the bags? Already in Tokyo—great, they should be at the hotel before us. Ok, just find a flight from Cozumel to Sapporo for—tomorrow? Mark said, “Go to work, Honey. This is what you’ve been training for!” Well, more than eight hours later, using all my tricks in the book, I had us routed on a multi-day flight trip, two overnight airport hotel bookings, and ten days of accommodations in Hokkaido during the busy week of Chinese New Year. Phew.
We threw a few things in a carry-on, dropped Pancha off with a friend, and hustled to the airport. Except just before our first flight to Chicago, I get a notification: bags are stuck in customs in Japan. Darn it. Mark suggests putting the trip on hold. If the bags don’t make it, we are showing up to 10 degree weather in flip flops. But I am delirious after having finally hitting “confirm” on the entire trip, so I refuse to abort. We fly to Chicago and then Tokyo, and along the way try to communicate with FedEx Japan. The language and time difference make this hard, but before we land in Tokyo, the bags are released from customs. Yay! We still have an overnight in Sapporo—surely they will reach us there?
We land in Sapporo and stay in the most lovely airport hotel ever: the Portom International Chitose. I will never forget the incredibly kind and polite reception we received after a long journey. The front desk staff had already been working on tracking our bags, and when we got there they said there was going to be no information until the morning, but that we should rest and they would be on it first thing when FedEx opens. They managed to serve us a late dinner at the bar and in the morning we enjoyed the onsen (indoor hot spring baths) at 5am when we woke up jetlagged.
Just an aside about my impression of the Japanese people I met: everyone is so polite and kind. There are the little things, like the cashier always handing you back your credit card with two hands, presenting it to you gracefully. Or the bellhop taking the time to show you everything in your room and how it works, including walking you down the hall to show you the nearest emergency exit door! Or the constant deferential bows, from lift operators to just someone sharing your elevator. While lapping a lift chair a few times, I got to witness a patroller ski under the chair to pick up a lost glove, and then later I saw him ski down to the base where he ceremoniously handed the glove to the owner. Everyone seems to take personal responsibility for everyone else’s health and well-being, making sure you are well-fed, warm, have all the information you need, and never get lost.
As a whole, the people exude a sense of calm and patience that I will forever try to emulate. This contrasts greatly with the American and Mexican cultures I normally find myself in, and Mark was laughing at how much I loved the rule-following culture in Japan, even though I dislike following rules when I am back home in the USA or Mexico. However, I would argue that when everyone follows every rule, rule-following is a joy because you don’t have to worry about that one bad seed who cuts in line or takes advantage of the rest. So, I suppose if I lived in Japan, I would be a much better person, ha ha!
So in typical Japanese form, while we had a delicious multiple course breakfast in a lovely dining room, the staff tracked down our bags for us and had them delivered in two hours! Then they arranged a taxi, loaded it with our bags while we waited in our room, and finally several members of the staff walked us to the elevator and bowed to us in unison as we descended to the parking garage. I wish I had a photo. So, just at the last minute, our trip was saved!
Club Med Experience—An Introvert’s Nightmare
Or was it? So, this is our fourth time skiing in Japan, and our favorite ski hill only has one hotel—otherwise you have to stay an hour away. We have stayed here several times and loved it, but after the pandemic this hotel was bought by Club Med. We thought, ok, sounds like fun, but OMG it’s not what we expected. We had no idea what Club Med was, we just figured it was a hotel with a nice buffet. It’s more like an experience and they have “animators” from all over the world who are there to sort of be your friends and entertain you. They actually ask to sit with you for meals, and then they want to drink with you and party with you. All the guests are non-Japanese foreigners, many “Club Med Regulars” who only vacation at Club Meds around the world. Most of the guests (and animators) barely know how to ski—they come to learn, because Club Med offer really good lessons, and lots of other activities like yoga and karaoke and arts and crafts. It’s basically a cruise ship.
So all the guests were partying with the “animators” til 1am every night, while Mark and I were tucked in by 9pm for early ups skiing. The food was excellent and the accommodations lovely and convenient, but the extremely outgoing and extroverted animators definitely started freaking Mark out. Even just entering the dining room, there was a line of animators there to greet us excessively. For an example, this was lunch.
Mark would then select the most out of the way table, and when an animator came by he would study his soup intensely. I had to tone down my “De donde eres?” attitude, simply to protect Mark, because otherwise we would have animators at our table for every meal! It became a joke. Mark would call getting a diet coke “running the gauntlet” because he would have to chat with three or four animators on the way to the bar and back. He would scope out alternate stairways to exit the dining room, and even considered wearing his headphones while walking through the lobby!
Oh yeah, and since we were there for the Lunar New Year, we got a tiny taste of how the Chinese celebrate, including many little gifts, tons of tangerines, and the same Chinese song played over and over in the lobby. But the best part was when we opened our fortune cookies.
Of course, the script was in kanji (Japanese) but our very sweet server Maki translated for us.
You are amazing.
The day of the big dump, we were up at 5am, watching the snowfall and checking the weather reports, excited for multiple feet of soft, light snow. I went to breakfast and the animators were giving me these sad, sympathetic smiles. I said, “What’s up?”
“We are sorry that the resort is not opening this morning because of the weather.” Uh-oh. This seemed odd. Indeed it was snowing, but not that hard for Hokkaido, and the winds were light. And in all our visits to Japan, the lifts were always open. This didn’t seem like an exceptionally big snow day—what the heck? I went upstairs to break the news to Mark, and he said, “What?! I’m going downstairs.” After 25 years, he still surprises me. Those of you who know Mark know that he is never confrontational. He’ll pay extra on a bill rather than discuss it with a waiter. He doesn’t like to make a fuss or deal with people (that’s my job, ha ha!). And since we got to Club Med, he was walking with his eyes glued to the floor to avoid animators!
Yet desperate times called for desperate measures. Mark went down to the lobby, and for the first time, couldn’t find an animator! Argh! He left the lobby and went to the ski mountain center, hunting around for someone to talk to. In years past there was a special office manned by mountain guides where you filed your out-of-bounds day plan in order to access the unpatrolled terrain— basically where the powderchasers and the people in “the know” hang out. Now the office had been turned into a coffee lounge. And even though it was less than forty minutes from the first scheduled lift opening, the ticket lines were oddly empty. He talked to a few hardcore European skiers who were leaving and heading to another resort an hour away. Was this typical? They didn’t know.
So he marched back to the hotel and headed down to the boot room, hoping to find at least a ski instructor who knew what the heck was happening. He found one and learned that this guy had just started a month ago. As they were talking, Merlin somehow appeared in the boot room. “Can I help you?” Merlin is the General Manager of Club Med, and we had already had glimpses of her around the resort. She was definitely the right person to talk to. Mark explained how shocked he was that the mountain was not opening, and explained that the amount of snow last night was typical weather for the winter. He also pointed out to her that this had never happened in the past, before the new owners had purchased the resort and Club Med. Merlin snapped to attention. She got on her cell phone and called John, the GM and Director of Operations for the mountain. She asked Mark if he would prefer speaking with him directly. Yes? Great, John was on his way down!
A few minutes later Mark was talking to John in the lobby, along with Merlin and three other ski instructors that Merlin had quickly gathered, so they could listen in and learn more about protocol. John was super knowledgeable but provided a handful of excuses that Mark politely shot down one-by-one: low visibility, lack of enough groomed runs, and excessive snowfall. Mark countered by pointing out that these protocols were not the case when the resort was under different management, and that other resorts in the area were open today, and to emphasize, he told them he was ski patrol for Mammoth Mountain, at which point they visibly leaned in.
Mark suggested that the resort was no longer catering to expert skiers, and was now just focused on family friendly and beginner skiing runs. Merlin jumped right into that, stressing that Club Med was absolutely targeting expert skiers, and this was not their policy at all. John and Merlin both passed the buck back and forth to each other, but at the end of the day, they both work for the same Chinese conglomerate who now owned both the ski resort and the hotel, so something was fishy. John said he would work as hard as he could to get some lifts open, and he seemed to understand Mark’s concerns, so Mark thanked him and let him get back to work. Then Merlin assured him that she would put all the pressure she could to get things open today.
One hour later, Merlin got on the loudspeaker (which plays in all the rooms, just like a cruise ship!) announcing that 2 lifts were now open. Two hours later, another more advanced lift was opened, and Mark and I got some really good powder runs. The top never opened that day, but the following day 100% of the mountain was open, even with the weather similar to previous day.
So, basically, Mark pulled a Mika. Except I would have never believed that I could single-handedly get the mountain to open upon my behest. I don’t know if I’m more shocked that Mark had the chutzpah to demand it, or that it worked. I was cracking up all day thinking about it as I floated through puffy powder.
The second part of our trip was at another resort a bit further east, so we waved goodbye to all the animators and got the heck out of dodge.
As soon as we left Club Med we let out a sigh of relief. The taxi driver spoke zero English so we thankfully had a quiet, beautiful drive through the amazing winter landscape.
Here at the second resort we redeemed our little hiccup at Club Med. It stormed the entire time we were there, and we had powder run after powder run. One day in particular will forever be forged in our memory. Big Thursday, we are calling it now. At first it looked like disaster had struck—the regular chair was closed and the gondola line was two hours long (Mark did a quick engineering calculation to estimate). We hesitated, wondering if we should try the old “take the monorail to the other gondola” trick to get over to steep stuff, but then unexpectedly they opened the chair and suddenly we were skiing endless powder, over and over again. We bounced between untracked glades of light, soft, fluffy powder to perfect tree runs with deep pockets and ideal pitch. It was a nice balance of steep runs with plenty of mellow ones in between, so I was able to keep up with Mark (he said after the first run he thought about ditching me, cause I was lagging, but then I got into the rhythm—can you imagine if he left me?!). It was very cold, around 5 degrees most of the day, but the wind wasn’t bad and all our gear held up pretty well. We skied for three hours without a break (not our style!), but it was just so good! Then we warmed up at the little lunch cafeteria, which was full of foreigners beaming ear to ear.
It was so cold that we didn’t dare take off our mittens for long, but we did get a few shots for posterity.
After lunch it was just as good, and as we took the final chair home, turns out we were both thinking about the same thing. We were marvelling about all the things that had to happen to get us to this perfect day, starting decades ago by just learning to ski, then gaining skills and experience to ski powder, and also building up resilience to handle the elements, the cold, the varied conditions, not to mention gratitude for the resources that we have to be able to jump on a plane and go ski all the way across the world in the perfect conditions….not to mention all the people along the way who have helped us get here. I could go on and on. I was full of gratitude and singing arigatou gozaimasu to all the lift ops who were braving the cold just to give us the most epic day ever, but in my heart I was saying it to the world. Thank you.
Here’s one last quick montage of some Japan memories: