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March 17, 2012
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The joys of Japan

Editor's note: This is the second part in a two-part series on a recent snowboarding trip to Japan. Visit www.vaildaily.com/japan to read the first part.

From the moment I got off the plane at Haneda Airport in Tokyo and had my first Japanese toilet experience, it was apparent this snowboard trip to Japan with eight of my Vail friends would be very different from any other snowboard trip I had taken. Getting off a plane after 14 hours of travel and dropping straight onto toilets with heated seats and a Star Wars-like control panel that offers a spa day for your rear is a sure way to kick the culture shock into high gear. Even more astounding was the fact that we found these high-tech toilets everywhere, from truck stops and transportation centers to our own quaint cottage and in the most humble of ski resorts.

Our 10-day trip to Hakuba, in the Japanese Alps, in late January was about more than finding the best snow and terrain to ride, though that was a clear goal. It was also about discovering the culture, the people and, of course, the food. From our initial train ride to the Japanese Alps, which had us pulling snowboard bags through some of the busiest yet most orderly train stations in the world, to our dining and karaoke experience with a native Japanese we befriended, Japan proved to be a trip for all the senses. It offered insight into old world traditions while overwhelming us in new world technologies.

Toilets aside, the Japanese, who thrive on convenience, are well known for their technological advances, which are everywhere. From the super fast Shinkansen, or bullet train that carries passengers up to 182 miles per hour, to the electronic ski pass scanners that sing "ding dong" as it scans your pass and lets you through a gate to the ski lift.

Convenient Japanese vending machines, filled with everything from alcoholic beverages and hot and cold coffee in a can to full hot meals and clothing items, provided us a whole new way of shopping. While there didn't appear to be much of an apres ski scene, we would often begin our own apres with a nice cold beer from the ski resort bus stop vending machine while waiting for the bus home. Getting off the bus we could continue our apres with hot and cold sake, beer and a wide selection of delicious, fresh snacks from the local and very popular Japanese 7-Eleven store near our cottage. Everything from fresh sushi and rice balls to steamed pork or curried buns and the elusive bacon on a stick were available. In fact, the 7-Eleven was so well stocked with goodies, a few of our group members had an impromptu apres party with sake and beer at the store one evening.

Conveyer belt sushi

What makes Japan so culturally shocking is how the fast pace of new technology co-exists so easily with old world traditions. Japanese food is a perfect example. In Tokyo, we enjoyed the convenience and novelty of the popular conveyer belt sushi restaurant with four sushi chefs rolling sushi at lightning speed for the ever-moving belt, disproving the notion that good food takes time.

In Hakuba, we were treated to a more traditional Japanese meal when our new Japanese friend, Yukio, took us to dinner at a small mom-and-pop style sushi restaurant. There, in a room with only a couple of tables and traditional floor seating, and shoes off at the door, a lone sushi chef meticulously rolled sushi for us as his wife served up course after course of traditional Japanese dishes and delicacies.

Food is also a good indicator of the cultural differences in any foreign country you visit, and this is particularly true in Japan. We all enjoyed the more familiar Japanese cuisine and were pleasantly surprised by the country's widespread love of curry, which seemed to be served at every on-mountain eatery. While for the most part everyone in our group was adventurous, we encountered a few personal food boundaries. While I tried the sashimi horse, something outlawed in America that tastes well, like raw meat, (and really, what's the difference, morally, between horse and cow anyway?) there were three things I couldn't stomach. Dried squid, a strange green gelatinous substance with spicy yellow mustard and a raw squid-like substance in a bowl covered in a strange salty sauce all proved to be more than most of us could handle.

Cultural disparity

We learned one of our biggest cultural lessons in Japanese traditions during our visits to the local onsen, a traditional Japanese hot springs. While the springs were the perfect way to unwind from a powder-filled day on the mountain, there are specific rules to using the onsen. First, they are separated into men's and women's pools, and the people in each pool are naked. That alone required a moment of mental adjustment for the more modest people in our group. Getting naked in front of a bunch of friends and strangers can be a little uncomfortable, initially. The rules are written on signs, in both Japanese and cartoon pictures, but due to the language barrier, following all the rules involved a little bit of guesswork. The first time I soaked, an older Japanese lady smiled at me, but spoke sternly in Japanese, pointing at the door. I smiled back and nodded, understanding nothing. I awkwardly left the room still not knowing what, if any, onsen rule I'd broken.

Finally, there were the little differences between the Japanese people and us that made us smile. On the ski mountains, the lift operators politely sang instructions to every single person who got on and off the chairlift.

Culturally speaking, the people are very polite and courteous, even when upset with you, like the woman at the onsen. On each train we rode, people remained quiet even as they were squished together against the windows as more passengers squeezed in beside them. We laughed at the signs on the mountain time and again, like the one directing skiers and snowboarders to the "Harfpipe" or the "Expert Onry" terrain. Another sign suggested that for everyone's safety, "skiers and snowboarders should not ride chairlifts together."

Our night out with Yukio, first to the sushi restaurant and then to the karaoke bar, gave us a taste of true Japanese hospitality. While he serenaded us with his beautiful voice, we returned the favor with our own punk renditions of not-so-punk songs. Who knew Joan Jett was more popular in Japanese karaoke than Elton John? Yukio, in true Japanese politeness, suffered through the sound with nothing but encouraging words for us and more songs. I would return to Japan for many reasons - for the food, culture, the kind people and, of course, the ridiculous amount of powder. But it was their tolerance of my karaoke voice, something I've yet to find anywhere else in the world, that surprised me most. That alone warrants another trip to Japan.

Dominique Taylor can be reached at dtaylor@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Mar 17, 2012 06:09PM Published Mar 17, 2012 05:49PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.