Fire and Ice
While skiing was the main attraction, Kerry van der Jagt was equally seduced by the Japanese onsen experience and a very unique ice bar
It is 3.00pm and I have had enough skiing for the day. My fingers and hair are frozen. The water from my nose has soldered to my face and a thermometer the size of a telegraph pole taunts me with a reading of minus 15 degrees. I’ve lost my husband, my children, my friends and my sense of humour. It’s time to call it quits.
In Niseko-Hirafu, on Japan’s north island of Hokkaido, snowstorms rush down from Siberia, collecting moisture from the Sea of Japan before dumping metres of the lightest, driest snow to be found anywhere on the planet. In these conditions the chair lifts are open from 8.30am to 8.30pm, and finishing early is a crime.
Quitting for the day is a crime surpassed only by that other anti-social behaviour known as “having a day off’. Either of these perversions is subject to punishment by the tribe, in my case also known as the family. Sideways glances, smirks and whispers of the word “wuss” are aimed at the guilty. Few skiers can withstand this treatment. However, as a repeat offender I have an armoury of mechanisms for escaping detection.
Mount Yotei, a dormant volcano that last erupted more than 5,000 years ago, is barely visible in the distance. My husband answers his mobile almost immediately. “Guess what?” I call out, trying to sound as if I’ve just finished a slalom race, while snow-plowing towards the nearest mountain hut cafe. “I’ve just found out there’s an ice bar and an onsen near where we’re staying.”
Our group, consisting of four adults and four teenagers, desperately wants to try an onsen (a traditional outdoor hot spring heated by underground volcanic vents). The ice bar would be an enticing bonus. Snow, soft as a whisper, is falling as I mention that the onsen closes early, and the ice bar is small and gets overcrowded late at night. I look to see if Mount Yotei is rumbling at my deception. A few minutes of idle chat and we agree to meet up at the top of the covered chairlift in half an hour. In less than two minutes, he calls back.
“I’ve told the others about the onsen and the ice bar and they’re all keen to go. You don’t mind if we finish early do you?”
“No problem,” I say, fist thrust to the sky.
THE ONSEN EXPERIENCE
Shuttle buses, free with the purchase of the All Mountain lift-pass, loop around the Hirafu village at 20 to 30 minute intervals. From the Hirafu Gondola it takes ten minutes on the bus and a five-minute walk (more a slip and slide than a walk) to the Yukora onsen.
There are two rules for onsen use: you must wash thoroughly before entering the spa water and swimming costumes aren’t allowed. Steps lead down to a large tiled room where clothes are shed and inhibitions dropped. I am not sure what part of my body is most in need of being covered, so I clutch onto the modesty towel like a security blanket.
More steps lead to a communal washroom where rows of Lilliputian stools are lined up in front of shower heads. From here I follow the lead of the woman beside me. On low stools and with the intensity and precision of a search and rescue mission, we scrub every square inch of our bodies.
Once washed, there are more rules. Etiquette dictates that one must enter the water with minimum disturbance. It is generally frowned upon to shout “last one in is a rotten egg”. I imagine my boys doing so in the male-only onsen next door, as they crash through Japanese local custom – Cro-Magnon man knows no rules.
The other rule concerns the modesty towel. It is not allowed to touch the onsen water, so most Japanese women place it on their heads while they are soaking.
After washing, we open the glass doors and step outside into the snow. The brutal night air slams into my chest and steals my breath. This sensation is short lived as I melt like sugar into the scalding tea green water.
Japanese women grimace and make long drawn out “ouchie” sounds. I followed suit with a few yappy “ouchies” of my own. Later I found out that the word is actually atsui, which means ‘hot’ (the road to learning the Japanese language is a slippery slope indeed).
Like Japanese snow monkeys do, we spend the next half an hour alternating between the 42 degree water and the cool volcanic rocks on the edge. A few women sit alone, others wade in small groups – and under an elegant night sky we whisper things of which all women speak.
Bar the Ice
Rugged up in our thermals and ski jackets, we meet the others outside. They are all grinning and looking silly as boys do after they’ve been naked together. They ask: “How do we get to the ice bar?”
Behind Resort House Bab (also on the shuttle bus route) it is a short walk through the snow to the hand-carved sign ‘Bar the Ice’. A set of ice steps lead down through a narrow doorway and into a ghostly blue cavern. Giant stalactites hang from the ceiling and frozen white feathers litter the floor. All around fairy lights glow like shards of broken mirror; surely the Snow Queen from Hans Christian Anderson lives here.
The bar is well stocked with bottles of Absolute vodka and Smirnoff Ice. A blackboard lists delights such as butterscotch schnapps with hot milk, or the cocktail of the day, Ian’s Bad Brother. There is hot lemonade or chocolate for kids. Each served in earthenware pots to ward off frost bite, in the minus 5 degree ice box.
Hirohiko Takenaka, the creator and owner, mingles with his guests. With two helpers and a Christmas deadline, it took him one month to complete.
“I can tell you two things about myself” he says. “The first thing – I am an artist. The second – I am a businessman. Luckily, I am 90 per cent artist and only 10 per cent businessman”. Hiro explains that he has been making ice sculptures for 35 years, ever since his father taught him when he was a six-year-old boy.
Given the frosty surroundings, it is not long before conversation carves a graceful turn back to skiing. Stories of great skill and daring, of steep runs, deep powder and hard falls are embellished, told and retold. My feet twitch as I remember the effortless pleasure that came from mastering powder skiing – fleeting yet addictive. Like this ice bar, the sensation will disappear in spring, appreciated only once it is gone.
Fire and ice
29 September 2006