I’m now back in Sakhalin, a mere 90km from Japan at the closest point, but one might as well be on the moon and the other on Saturn as far as proximity has resulted in similarity.
I went to Japan with an Australian, German, and a Brit who were all experienced snowboarders intent on doing off-piste powder boarding whilst trying to avoid being buried in an avalanche. For my part, I was intent on learning how to ski whilst trying to avoid breaking any limbs or looking like a complete twit. With the exception of that last one, it was a successful trip for all of us.
Regular readers will remember that I had been to Japan last July for a visa run, and thought pretty highly of it, and so I had high expectations of this trip. I wasn’t disappointed. As soon as we got off the aeroplane at Narita airport, one of my friends pointed out that Japan always seems overstaffed: everywhere you look, there are people in impeccable uniforms – always uniforms – standing about helping you out. Even the customs official with dazzling white gloves checking your bags for contraband has the manner of a tour guide. More uniformed people help you towards an enormous door maked “Exit” which opens on its own anyway. Contrast this with Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk where exiting the airport from the baggage area takes you through a set of double doors each no more than two feet wide, one of which is always locked shut, which open inwards into the crowd of people trying to pass through, after which you go down a flight of twelve concrete steps. Who the hell designs an airport entrance which involves a flight of steps?
The overstaffed comment stuck with me. On our first day in Tokyo we witnessed six beaming uniforms blocking the pavement while a car reversed out from a building, just an ordinary office block. Later, when it had started raining, each man pulled on an identical set of white wellies and a transparent raincoat. In Niseko, watching a front-end loader clearing huge piles of snow on a public road was a flagman in blue livery with a white helmet, a whistle, and a flashing baton who signalled for the driver to stop every time a pedestrian walked nearby, nodding and smiling at anyone who walked past. Roadworks in Japan are accompanied by a whole load of regularly arranged flashing cones and a workforce which looks as though they are interested in getting the job done and minimising inconvenience to traffic, one of whom is a flagman decked out in a white helmet and reflective clothing who actually watches the traffic. The road crews in Sakhalin look like escaped prisoners and the flagman loses interest to the point that he idly waves you through into the path of a speeding Isuzu lorry coming the other way. What struck me about the work ethic in Japan – and I am prepared to believe this is only appearances which belie a different reality – was that even those doing what would normally be classed as menial jobs seemed to be carried out with professionalism and dedication without the stigma which accompanies such work in the west. There are thousands of middle-aged or even elderly men doing menial work in Japan who seem more enthusiastic and take more pride in their work than people in middle management in the UK. Clearly this is a cultural thing whereby any work is viewed as more noble than doing nothing, even if the work is menial; and if a job needs doing, even a menial job, then it should be carried out to perfection. It struck me as a form of welfare. Rather than taking the UK approach of paying a couple of million able-bodied people to sit about doing nothing whilst countless menial tasks go undone, the Japanese culture allows people to carry out useful (if not strictly necessary) tasks without the stigma associated with doing a rubbish job. In terms of appearance, a visitor to Japan comes away amazed at how clean and orderly the place is and how professional the people are. A visitor to the UK comes away wondering why the nation which conquered the developing world is so eager to adopt its appearance.
Tokyo was a lot of fun. Having arrived in Narita and got ourselves on the super-comfortable bus with loads of baggage space and unbelievably helpful driver (who loaded our bags for us) which took us to our hotel followed by the obligatory arrival beer or three, we headed off to some acting school where we learned to samurai sword fight for 3 hours. We were (thankfully) only using wooden swords, and the beers beforehand were not a good idea, and the instructors couldn’t really speak English, and the little Japanese instructor looked more than capable of chopping us in half with a sword while sipping tea on a veranda, but it was heaps of fun and even though we are probably not going to be called upon to work as samurai warriors any time soon, we did manage to pull off some semi-cool looking moves (accompanied by the obligatory “Japanese” war cry gleaned from war movies) and even took part in a role play where we kill one of the instructors. This was an acting school after all.
A Samurai warrior defeats a brigand
The Samurai warrior turns on the brigand’s camera crew
Nothing is more natural to a visitor in Tokyo who has had 3 hours of samurai sword instruction than going to get ratarsed until the early hours, so as the forces of nature demanded of us, we did that. We headed for the Golden Gai district which is made up of hundreds of tiny bars, some no larger than 2m x 4m, and proceeded from one to another, drinking a beer in each one, adhering to a rule that we must go down any dark, dingy alley we came across.
Listen love, I’ve told you already, I’m engaged, all right?
It was fun, with some of the small bars showing plentiful character which some say Tokyo lacks, although we did find ourselves paying extortionate prices for even a single drink and half the time a cover charge was piled on top. Unsensibly for four expats with over 20 years of overseas experience amongst us, we happily told one barman who, when he was figuring out what to charge us and asked the question, that we had never been here before and had no idea how the system worked. Unsurprisingly we got fleeced.
Anyone know how much this is gonna cost?
Gradually the beer turned into soju (which I always thought was a Korean drink), and then to potato soju foisted on us by a couple of very friendly young Japanese men who we stumbled across in a bar. I was more comfortable on the soju, even if made from potatoes, than endless pitchers of (excellent) Sapporo beer, but our poor German friend is hopeless on spirits (but drinks beer in 5-day sessions) and ended up drunkenly claiming he could moonwalk which the Japanese really, really wanted to witness. They did, we did, we all laughed. We stopped laughing when one of the Japanese pulled out his mobile phone, flipped it open, rotated the screen through 90-degrees to show how he could watch Japanese TV on widescreen anywhere in the country. We showed him how ours could send text messages and take grainy photos, and talked about this thing called fire we discovered last month.
Okay, we’ve met some incredibly drunk westerners. Now what?
I was pretty hammered at this stage and so am somewhat reliant on others’ testimony for what happened, but it seems the Japanese were in two minds whether to go home for some much-needed sleep (they were working the next day, and it was already 1am) or to take us to a Japanese restaurant. They chose the latter, and walked us along what seemed like a quarter of the Tokyo marathon route towards the restaurant. Along the way we were continually harassed by African men trying to entice us into various strip joints with dubious promises of the best girls in Tokyo. This took all of us by complete surprise, and after a while it became seriously annoying as the men were most insistent and would follow us for miles. I pretended I was a Russian who knew no English and they left me alone, but it was still a pain. I’m surprised the Japanese put up with it, I can’t believe many visitors are left with anything but a negative impression after coming into contact with these men, who number in the hundreds. I wonder if they do the job because the Japanese for whatever reason find it difficult to do themselves? Certainly, when we were in Sapporo I noticed the Japanese men trying to flog us similar services were far less animated, almost embarrassed. And thankfully, there appear to be areas where touting for strip clubs is forbidden; walking down one street, the chap following us stopped abruptly as though a line were drawn in the road, and from thereon we could walk in peace.
So we ended up in a restaurant with our two Japanese friends who could not speak much English, which mattered not one jot to us or them, and we sat on the floor with our shoes lying somewhere near the door as beer after beer and plate after plate arrived at our table for the next couple of hours. I have no idea what was said by whom or to whom, but I do remember that when the bill came it was the same price as we’d paid for 4 drinks in the Golden Gai and we had a bit of a hard time trying to get our friends to let us pay for it. We ended up splitting it 50:50 or 60:40 or everyone throwing in random notes until the waiter left satisfied, and we spilled onto the road back-slapping and thanking and went our separate ways sometime around 3am. I forget what the plan was, but we somehow ended up in a minute bar somewhere containing a counter and four stools which was so narrow that when your belly was against the counter your back was six inches from the wall.
Look! We’re the only ones in here!
D’you think he knows we’re not from around here?
The barman was a lively fellow, which was just as well considering the state of his clientele, and kept us plied with drinks and put up with what must have been inane conversation until somewhere near 4am when we fell out onto the road, which could be done by leaning back on your stool, dodged the Cameroonian at the end of the road who promised us women and, erm, more women and took a taxi home. I guess we’ll never know if the barman believed the story from two of our number that they were producers of pornographic movies, but he seemed to as somebody woke up in the morning with a piece of paper with a few phone numbers scrawled on it. Numbers, I hasten to add, that went unrung.
One of these two is a porn king
There’s nothing quite like shopping for electronics in Tokyo, and for a few hours the next day that’s what we did. It’s fun, because you get to look at the stuff we’ll be using in our homes in the west in 10 years time. The cutting edge technology we see in the UK has probably been in Japan since 1986. More importantly, you could find lying on shelves any accessory for Canon cameras which exists. I struggled in vain in Singapore and Manila to find certain accessories for my SLR and video camera, but in the giant electronics store in Tokyo the lady flicked through the catalogue and pulled it off the shelf behind her without wrinkling a brow. We also wandered into a sex shop which suggested that perhaps all is not well in the gloomier corners of Japanese society. Eerie dolls of what looked to be 12 year old schoolgirls, umpteen devices combining latex, gels, and mysterious liquids into which male members can be poked for sexual pleasure, machinery for men and women which made me wonder where they recruit the designers from, and an impressive selection of DVDs through which ran the common theme of the action being slightly, and sometimes not so slightly, forced. Then there were the pornographic comic books which lined shelves in their thousands, many of which depicted various bodily fluids deposited by what must have been a firehose rather than a human being. Very strange indeed, but seemingly no less popular for being so.
One highlight of our two-day adventure in Tokyo was going to the Tokyo Dome City theme park and riding the Thunder Dolphin roller coaster. Tokyo is a big city containing some monster buildings, and it is somewhat disconcerting when hungover to look around you on the steep ascent at the start of the ride to see the whole city spread out aroud you, large towers beneath you, and notice that you are still only three-quarters the way up. If there are any Japanese wondering who those four foreigners were whimpering in the rearmost car during the ascent and blubbering near the top that they’d changed their minds and wanted to get off, it was us. It was a seriously good ride.
We flew from Tokyo Haneda airport to Sapporo on a 1-hour ANA commuter flight, which turned out to be a Boeing 747. With efficiency unrivalled anywhere else in the world the plane was filled from the boarding gate within fifteen minutes flat and emptied at the other end in ten. Even small planes in the UK take half an hour to fill what with dunderheads unable to find their seat and trying to fit 3-foot bags into a 2-foot space. And in Japan they don’t have some archaic system of physically tearing off boarding passes before you board, you simply flash a bar code past a reader and on you go.
Our first three days skiing were spent in the resport of Rusutsu, where I donned my newly purchased skiing gear and found myself an instructor, a 54-year old called Mori who used to be in the Japanese airforce. I asked him when he first learned to ski, but alas he couldn’t remember. His earliest memory was him skiing to school when he was 3 or 4, so it must have been before then. By contrast, I had had a couple of 2-hour ski lessons on Gornii Vozdukh the week before I went where I had mastered the snowplough (provided it wasn’t too steep and I wasn’t expected to turn right). My lesson in how to mount a ski-lift was delivered in the time between the thing whacking my legs and the bar coming down and whacking my head, and my first attempt at dismounting saw me skidding along the floor on my arse and a further two or three minutes to get back up onto my skis, all of which amused my companions somewhat. By the time Mori had finished with me he had me good enough to go down any of the red runs in the resort (which I did the next day), and was making something between parallel turns and a snowplough (more of one than the other depending on which direction I was trying to turn in). My speed down the slope was somewhere between snail and glacial, my body position put my chin between my skis, and my arms flailed like a grain thresher but I was able to get down the slopes without falling over. My friends, whose cruelty knows no bounds, chided me for not making enough effort in falling over and christened me Sonic Boom.
Erm, I found these lying about. Anyone know what they are for?
By the time we got to Niseko for the final five days skiing and I’d taken another couple of hours instruction from an Aussie, I was going a bit faster and able to come down the steeper slopes doing parallel turns, which is about where I wanted to be in terms of skiing by the end of the holiday. Niseko was a nice enough place but ludicrously expensive; for example, we were charged $3 each for some raw cabbage leaves and mustard which was a compulsory purchase when you sit down in one of the bars, so we took an opportunity one night to go to Kutchan, the small town just along the road by bus, where the prices were a third what they were in the ski resort and even though I don’t particularly like sushi I thought this is the place to eat a pile of it if I’m ever going to. So I did, and it was not at all bad. The skiing was a bit hit and miss, largely due to a monster hangover which wrote me off for the first day and the final day saw strong winds close all the lifts and the snow turned into slush. During our stay the place was half empty and many buildings stood unoccupied, perhaps a sign of the economic crisis. If they want to retain the numbers for next year, they’re going to have to examine their prices. Another thing I liked about skiing was that afterwards you could go and get drunk and act like a lout, only it isn’t called getting drunk and acting like a lout. Instead it gets called aprés ski, and is therefore far more sophisticated.
All in all, it was a a great trip and a huge thanks are due to the two Japanese gentlemen who took us out in Tokyo, as well as the dozens of Japanese who helped us out when we were struggling with something or other, from locating the right bus to dismounting a ski-lift.
Before I finish, some public apologies are due to various people. Jan would like to apologise to a certain barmaid for asking in all seriousness whether she was from Niseko or another part of Japan (she was from New Zealand); Nick would like to apologise to whomever has to pay for the serviceable parts of the toilets in the places we stayed; I would like to apologise to my three companions who had to share a chalet with me (they know what for); Mark would like to apologise to the Japanese Department of Health, Sanitation, and the Environment for leaving his ski socks outside and thus being responsible for the extinction of at least two indigenous species; Nick and I would like to apologise to Mark for his being unable to make any move whatsoever on the pretty Japanese girl in Splash bar (those purple wellies would have looked good beside your bed); I feel an apology is necessary to two wonderful young ladies from Queensland whom I mistakenly said lacked class; Jan would like to apologise to his entire nation for being the most untidy, disorganised German ever to have entered a ski chalet; and we would all like to apologise to the next residents of the Ronde Lodge in Niseko who must surely be due some discount.
Finally, I hope the Australian who gave an unprovoked Nazi salute to Jan and Mark when they were wearing their lederhosen gets a damned good kicking, sooner rather than later.