Travel builds good memories for recall during this pandemic.
If not for this pandemic, I would be in snow land in Japan right now. Just early January this year before anyone has heard of the word Covid-19, I had the good fortune to be in Nirvana, which is Niseko in the wildland of Hokkaido.
I will never forget the moment the bus pulled up at the bus-stop and the driver said that we have to alight. It was snowing heavy white powder everywhere. When my friend, Irene and I got off, we went straight knee-deep into the powdered snow with our bags half-submerged as well.
We felt a mix of joy and trepidation as the snow beat down on us. In the bitter cold and both of us handling a sizeable bag, we wondered if we could make it to the train station 500m away. The cold shook us to the core yet we wanted this experience.
A passerby offered to help us book a taxi but all taxis would only pick us up from the station. We gritted our teeth and dragged our bags along the wet road, avoiding the side pavements that had built up with snow. In and out of shops we went, first a bakery, then a cafe, to get a respite from the cold and partake of something hot to beat the chill.
Alas, we reached the station. Anywhere in Japan, the customer service counter never disappoints. Most of the staff were volunteers, happy to converse with foreigners in English. We booked a cab that came promptly and the driver took us on a scenic route to our hotel.
Absolute Niseko Lodge is in a great location in Kutchan city at a price that was very affordable. The lodge was behind a resort that is next to the main street. It had stopped snowing but that did not dampen our enthusiasm. As soon as we checked in the bags, we made snowballs and threw them at each other outside the lodge.
The first day at Kutchan town of Niseko was exploration. We noticed that this skiing spot was a top hit with foreigners judging from the international mix. Everything was within reach with a huge supermarket that caters to many tastes and stock full of necessary items for a resort as remote as Niseko.
The Japanese restaurant had a long queue way before it was opened and people were already milling around to join the queue. We walked the streets and passed many quaint resorts. There were many upscale apartments in the process of completion for the year 2021 for interested investors and I can imagine more crowd would come to experience the famous quality snow here.
From where we stood, the ski mountain was all around us and skiers were enjoying their sport. I must say it was too crowded for an amateur skier like me. However, we were in Niseko. Even if I did not ski, I would not miss the scenic beauty for anything in the world.
Ahead of me, Mount Yotei loomed. It is very similar to Mount Fuji in Tokyo, in the prefecture of Honshu. The view was equally breathtaking. At various times of the day from dawn to sunset, the mystic Mt Yotei appealed to us and we started taking pictures. The properties in Kutchan seemed very much sought after.
From Kutchan, we were close to Hirafu village where the biggest resort, Grand Hirafu stands. That leaves a reason for us to be back. We had only two nights at Kutchan where we spent pretty much of the time watching skiers negotiate their courses down the slopes, sampling great food and wine, and enjoying some onsen.
Our next stop was Tomamu, unheard of to me at least but I was glad to experience it. Out of Niseko, we boarded a bus that headed for Tomamu, about 2 hours away.
This time, we were looking forward to staying in a large Japanese home turned hotel.
Mr. and Mrs. Tadayuki Natsui are the owners of the property, Pension Ing Tomamu. A large brown house in the middle of nowhere but Mr. Tadayuki’s service was impeccable. He would pick up his guests and also brought them back to the bus station or railway station on checkout. In addition, he provided free transport to popular places near his lodge.
Pension Ing Tomamu has a perfect setting of a home with a cozy dining area, fireplace, and an indoor onsen to boot. At the specified time arranged every morning, we would first have a delicious Japanese breakfast. Breakfast with a view of the snowy surroundings.
Everything tasted so good in winter but to be honest, Japanese food is just delicious. Mr. Tadayuki dropped us at a famous ski resort called Hoshino resorts Tomamu that is very popular with the Chinese Nationals. We also arranged a pick-up time back to his pension house.
What really impressed me were the ski slopes of Tomamu resort. There were miles and miles of wide ski routes and it was a really massive change from Niseko, though the latter is world-famous. For amateur skiers like myself, this came as a great relief as I need not worry about bumping people off their tracks.
I stayed on the green course which was the basic route for beginners and that was wide and long enough to allow skiers to enjoy the unimpeded slopes of Tomamu. Tomamu is also known to be very snowy which added to the thrill.
The snow felt so velvety smooth it is no wonder the skiers who come to Hokkaido are also called powder hunters.
Not once did I fell on the slopes. I was not going at a particularly high speed and that attested to the easy skiing on Tomamu slopes due to the snow quality. The two skyscrapers stood in contrast to the wild surroundings of Tomamu which is actually quite remote in Hokkaido.
Tomamu resort has a sprawling network of restaurants which were often full but we managed to sample the food there. Most memorable were Hokkaido-Charred Shoyu ramen, old-fashioned ramen, Tomamu limited Tonkatsu ramen, and Yuzui tsuyu tsukemen which we lapped up with relish.
In the evenings, we paid a small admission fee to visit Tomamu’s illuminated ice village which was a collection of domes constructed entirely of snow and ice. Amongst them was a bar, a cafe, a shop, a wedding chapel, an ice-skating rink, and a workshop with ice-related hands-on activities.
Our winter experience may be brief but left indelible memories.
In a pandemic, it is disconcerting for many travel buffs. But do not let anything get you down. Open your albums and recall the good times you have had.
If you are short on travel, explore your own country and you will be surprised by the changes that are always ongoing around us. The world is so global and change is swift and subtle even in one’s own ‘backyard’.
With the internet, one can reach almost anywhere virtually in today’s world and be prepared to explore again once Covid-19 is over.