A fairly bare bones account of our trip:
We began our travels to Niseko, Hokkaido on Thursday, February 10th. We packed lightly for two adults and a baby, bringing two carry-ons, a diaper bag, a small back pack, and a stroller. A neighborhood bus took us to downtown Oita, where we boarded another bus to Fukuoka City. We arrived without much incident, but many snafu were to follow. Don't worry, we had lots of fun and enjoyed ourselves, despite Murphy's Law.
We figured out almost immediately upon exiting the bus that we had left our camera between our seats. We went right to a service desk and reported our mistake, and I have no idea how they got a hold of us where we were, but about 24 hours later we got a message that our camera would be waiting for us when we got back to Fukuoka. I was never worried about it. Things just very rarely get stolen in Japan and I had great confidence that we would get it back, which we did. The service in Japan is also wonderful; the camera was bubble-wrapped and bagged. They didn't want to disturb the state in which they found the camera, so they did not replace the lens cover. We had to rely on friends to get pictures of our trip, but people were very generous with their cameras, especially J, and we got the camera back, so everything turned out well.
After getting to Fukuoka and taking care of the camera, we took a short train ride to the airport from the bus terminal, where the lady at the desk confirmed our flight from Fukuoka to Tokyo, but informed us that we didn't actually have a flight from Tokyo to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. What we had was a backwards flight to Tokyo from New Chitose. We took the flight to Tokyo anyway, assuming that everything would work out.
The person who booked our flights and who owns the hotel we stayed at in Niseko met us at Haneda Airport in Tokyo. I don't know if the mix up was his fault or the airline's fault, but he got us on a later flight and bought us dinner. This change in plans made us too late to Sapporo to see the snow festival on Thursday and affected the entire group of Oita and Hokkaido JETs on this trip. We were all to meet at a chartered bus to drive from Sapporo to Niseko, but we couldn't get there even by 10pm to get on the bus, so the bus, and everyone on it, went way out of the way to pick us up at New Chitose Airport. We finally left the airport on the bus at some minutes after 11pm and rode for what seemed like an eternity to the Freedom Inn in Niseko. We arrived at about 2:30 in the morning. Poor Knox fell asleep in my arms around 10:30pm, then was transported from an airport couch back to my arms, then to Peter's arms, followed by two bus seats, and finally, finally, through the snow and up the stairs to bed. We were there.
The Freedom Inn was beautiful and cozy, almost like a bed and breakfast. (What a terrible name, though. It sounds like a side-of-the-road Motel. A beautiful, private place like that, located next to a world class ski area, should have a better name. The Niseko House. That would be better. Anything would be better.) The wood floors and traditional furnishings felt warm and inviting, and I love any hotel that provides a library, even though I didn't get a chance to read. Knox doesn't appreciate when mommy reads during his waking hours. Brick, wood, a fireplace, and big windows affording vast views of the falling snow put me at ease. I could have sat there all day with cups of coffee and tea, reading. Someday maybe I'll get to.
On the first day we went sledding. Knox went down with Peter as I could hardly keep myself upright on my own. Then we all took a shuttle van into Hirafu, the closest city with anything, and had dinner at an Indian restaurant called the Taj Mahal. At the end, everyone started singing Happy Birthday and I joined in, looking around for the birthday person. It was me. I got a couple of great presents and ice cream, and the restaurant gave me this little commemorative plate. After dinner I took Knox home and Peter and some friends went to an onsen.
On the second day we went on the zip line. My first time across was very uncomfortable. They had forgotten to clip the straps around my legs, so my only support was the strap between my legs. Yeah. I also hit my head pretty hard on the mat that stops you at the end. I got my straps fixed and made sure to finish feet first after that, and I had fun. When we had finished riding the zip line, Peter took Knox for a nap and I went with K and J to Hirafu to ride the gondola up the mountain. The view was amazing. In the evening of the second day, Peter went skiing for free and I took Knox on a trip to Otaru. We had decided not to ski because of the expense, so it was awesome that Peter got to go.
My trip to Otaru, honestly, was extremely stressful due to taking a little guy on the train and through an icy city with limited time, improper cold weather clothing, and no stroller, but I will remember it fondly anyway. I had no idea that the train to Otaru would take close to two hours. The snow candle festival they were having was beautiful, even if I only got to glance at things for a moment before chasing after Knox. They had trees, hearts, bricks, wells, and lots of interesting things made out of snow, including snow men, all illuminated in creative ways by candles. Some of the most beautiful sights were just candles sitting in little holes dug out of the snow. The canal had many floating candles. The whole thing was very romantic feeling and would've made a wonderful date. We had to stop to warm Knox up, then went to dinner at a big German restaurant where they made their own beer. I stayed busy getting Knox changed, trying to dry his socks and feet, getting him warm, keeping him entertained, and feeding him. And trying to feed myself, too. Just as Knox was fed and I felt like I could relax for a moment, it was time to go back to the train. And we had to run. We made it to the train on time, and Knox fell asleep. I held him for two hours back to the Inn.
That night, the second night, some of us went down to the Japanese style bath. It is like an onsen, but is tap water rather than spring water. They only have one, so there is girl time and then boy time. The boys got crazy. There was an incident with water getting all over the floor of the hotel and I heard a lot of commotion from 3 stories up. I looked out the window just in time to see a naked body climbing back into the bath area. Many college aged guys, nudity, and snow. Of course they would end up running around naked in the snow. Who would expect any different? And who could ask for more?
On the third morning we ate breakfast and then got packed up to ride the train to Sapporo. We had decided not to come back for our last night at the Freedom Inn because of how far it was from everything. Even after getting a hotel room, we only spent about $40 extra and saved ourselves 5 hours of traveling with a baby. The travel times were better too. We got more sleep by staying in Sapporo.
The festival was beautiful and totally worth the effort. We saw sculptures of dinosaurs, cartoon characters, animals, and government buildings (to scale). They had a giant ski jump set up in the park in the middle of Sapporo where we watched a ski jump contest. It snowed a lot!! We stayed at The Regency Hotel right next to the station. After viewing the Yuki Matsuri for a while, we stopped in The United Colors of Benetton where I got a green shirt on super-sale, and then headed back to the hotel to let Knox rest. That night we met up with S and B, who decided on a crab restaurant, which is famous in Sapporo, I think. It was really good and a memorable Japanese dining experience. We took our shoes off at the front door, watched a Japanese man brushing snow off of people with a little broom, took a tatami floored elevator up, and sat on cushions at our table. Knox and the rest of us enjoyed the fountains where they keep the crabs on the way out.
We got a decent night's sleep and then had a monster of a day of traveling on Monday, February 14th, my birthday. We started the day with a 9:30am train, then rode a plane from Hokkaido to Fukuoka, at which time we found out that our bus from there to Oita was cancelled. We got the 5pm train from Fukuoka to Oita, then got a bus at a little after 8 pm to our neighborhood. We had travelled for almost 12 hours and were finally home. That's one thing that sucks about Japan; you can't just go somewhere, you have to ride planes, trains, and automobiles for hours on end.
One of my fondest memories of the trip is just the picture in my mind of the snow piled up on the rooftops of the little houses in Niseko and Hirafu. I've never seen so much snow in my life. It looks gravity defying, how it balloons out like a Seuss drawing. I hope I have a picture of that somewhere.
I also loved the view from the gondola. The mountains blanketed the land and went on forever. Even in Nepal, I don't think I've ever seen so many mountains at once.
That's our trip. Hectic, but beautiful. When I get the pictures, I'll add some here and post them on Facebook.