We landed in Sapporo before noon and had a few hours to kill before taking a bus to Rusutsu, one of the “nearby” mountains, which would take about an hour and a half. After getting some food and losing to Megs at a card game and being a sore loser about it, I angrily suggested that it was time to make our way to the bus pickup area.
There wasn’t anything too crazy about the bus: it was your typical two-seats-on-either-side-of-the-aisle bus and about two-thirds full. After about an hour, we started getting some great views of the mountains, most notably of Mt. Yotei, “the Mt. Fuji of Japan’s north island.”
Apparently Rusutsu is pretty small as there were only two possible dropoff locations: the Westin at the foot of the mountain or Rusutsu Resort on the other side of the main road that runs through town. Based on where we were staying, we exited at Rusutsu Resort. Saying we were surprised when we walked into the hotel would be an understatement. In front of us was an indoor merry-go-round (equipped with multiple levels), a talking tree (almost Chuck E. Cheese style), and a bunch of other weird amusement park things. It was so weird that it almost made me wish we were staying there.
We got our packs in order and started walking towards the house we were staying in, approximately 0.6 miles from Rusutsu Resort. When we got to the location, there was nothing there. We circled the area and saw nothing that looked like any of the pictures we saw online. There were a few local cafes/restaurants nearby so we went into one and asked for directions. They didn’t speak any English but they were able to show me a map that had the house pinned on it (I guess people often had trouble finding the house). It was a little farther up the road but after about 15 more minutes of walking, we made it.
We were staying at The Ohisama House. The online description had it classified as a two-bedroom house so we knew there could be other people there too. When we got there, it looked more like a regular house than a bed-and-breakfast type accommodation. There was a small sign in the front yard with the name but when I opened the front door, there was no reception desk or anyone in eyeshot. Just a bunch of shoes and ski gear. I turned to Megs with a confused, and somewhat concerned, look on my face.
From around the corner and in the distance we heard “Hello? Come in!” A small woman turned the corner with a big smile on her face. She welcomed us and invited us into the main area (after removing our shoes, of course). It was a large house with lots of wood features, just like any great mountain house should be. A small desk in the middle of the room said “reception”, which seemed out of place since A) it should be by the front door, in my opinion (I never would have continued that far into the house if she didn’t say “hello”, and B) it looked silly being in the middle of the main living space. There was also a curtain between the living space and the kitchen with a sign that said “staff only”.
We made our way upstairs to our room and the owner, Yoko, left us to get settled. We closed the door and looked at each other. “It’s weird that she lives here and will be around… since it definitely seems like this is her actual house. This is a little uncomfortable.” Megs had a point. It felt a little uncomfortable, which is why we quickly showered (finally, hot water!), put our stuff down in the room and immediately left to try to stay out of the house for a few hours until it was time for bed.
We walked towards “the town”, if you want to call it that. There were about 4 restaurants/bars, a couple convenience stores, and a ski rental shop. We snagged a few things from the convenience store (some bananas, popcorn, and a few beers) and were making our way to the restaurants when a sign in one of the windows of the rental shop caught our eye. One window said “rentals”. Another said “bar”. A third said “cafe”. The windows on the second floor said “karaoke” and “party”. We decided we should check it out.
It was a small wooden building that had rentals to the right and a few tables and high-tops to the left. A stand alone wooden dry bar was back towards the corner with a chalkboard food menu on the wall behind it. Better than being at the house, we agreed. There was only one other small group of people there and they left after about 10 minutes of us being there. A couple sakes later, we moved on for dinner.
We stopped at a place called Pirateman, which seemed fitting because I was wearing my Pirates hat. This place had a few more people in there and they all appeared to be locals. The table next to us was three Japanese people. One of the guys struck up a conversation with us. It was a slow conversation since they knew a little English but communication took some effort. A guy on the other side of our table overheard us talking and chimed in a few times. I felt bad turning to talk to him but the conversation was easier with his fluid English (he was Canadian-born but living in Bali and vacationing at his second home in Rusutsu). Eventually they all left, Megs and I ordered our food, I was given a proper pirate hat to wear, we ate, and we headed back to the house.
When we walked back into the house, there was a different guy (not the owner) sitting in the main room. He saw us and his face lit up. “You! Staying here?!” It was one of the three Japanese people we briefly talked to at Pirateman. He looked like he couldn’t be happier that we were staying there. Yoko seemed confused as to what was going on and he explained that he saw us down the road a bit earlier. We smiled and told them we went to the rental shop/cafe/whatever else it is before Pirateman to get a few drinks and he nodded his head laughing and saying “Ahh, drinks! Drinks! Yes!” After a minute or two, we said we were tired and went up to our room for the night.
All the traveling had us pretty beat so I was in bed and sleeping by about 8:30. Early in my sleeping, I heard some loud noises but didn’t think much of it until Megs said “do you hear that? What is that?” I rolled over and opened my eyes and was surprised at what we saw. Through the giant bay window of our room, there were fireworks going off at the foot of the mountain. We got a full fireworks display from the comfort of our beds (yes, plural – two twin beds is what our room had). The show lasted for at least 10-15 minutes. Maybe this place wouldn’t be so bad after all. We were woken up by the sun since the window didn’t have any blinds or curtains and started getting ready for our first day of boarding. We initially planned to do Kiroro, a nearby mountain, for the first day and Rusutsu the second day, but after talking to the Canadian/Balinesen, he said there were next to no good transportation options to get there and that the options that were available were very expensive. Rather than spending more money to move around, we decided to stay put and do two days at Rusutsu. It wasn’t a huge mountain compared to what we’re used to in Colorado but it covered three separate mountains and should be plenty good enough for us for a couple days.
We were heading downstairs to brush our teeth and the guy who we met the night prior (we never did find out for sure if he was a part owner with Yoko or what), was sitting at the kitchen table and greeted us with a big smile. “Coffee?” If there’s one thing I know about Megs, it’s that that girl loves herself a cup of coffee in the morning. I smiled and said sure, and he fixed two cups for us. We sat there for a good 15 or 20 minutes talking to him: about snowboarding (he both skis and snowboards), where we’re from and what the mountains are like there, his kids (he has 4 with the oldest being 32 and the youngest 27), how his one boy plays professional ice hockey in the Asian league and they won a playoff game the night before), the rest of our trip, etc. We also got his name, Kazia. We liked Kazia.
Before we were done talking, he asked where we were getting our rentals and recommended a friend’s rental shop. It happened to be the same place we went for sake the day before. He said he could call the rental shop and get us 30% off. This was a real solid discount since we were not only renting boards and boots but also snow pants, jackets, helmets and goggles.
We left the house, got our gear that we would be using for the next two days, and headed for the mountain. The mountain offered night skiing but we figured the 6-hour ticket would be plenty. There hadn’t been any new snow for almost two weeks so there was no need to push it for a long day with conditions that would likely get pretty icy when the sun went down.
It was a beautiful, sunny day. We had heard from Kazia, Yoko, and the guy at the rental shop that Mt. Isola was the favorite spot on the mountain for all of them so we made that our destination. It was the farthest mountain from the gondola so it allowed us to take a few not-too-challenging runs to get there to get used to our boards and to feel comfortable. We both had some minor issues with our boots and bindings but managed to cope with them by the time we got to Isola.
The views from the top were incredible. Since it was such a clear and sunny day, we could see not only Mt. Yotei across the main road but we had views of a nearby lake, Lake Toya, and even views of the Pacific Ocean! While we were taking pictures and enjoying the view from the top, it happened again. A random guy approached us, held up his camera at us and said “picture?” with a big grin on his face. We obliged. At the moment, I didn’t think to take one with my camera, too, so I creepily took one from a distance after we had parted ways.
Being that it had been so long since the last snow storm, we didn’t get to experience the legendary Japow that we’ve heard so much about, but we did found some varying terrain to navigate. Apparently a lot of mountains in Japan don’t allow off-piste skiing (going off the marked trails) but Rusutsu was ok with it. Since the trails themselves, called courses in Japan, weren’t too steep or challenging, we ended up spending most of the day in the trees.
The sun was starting to set and we were nearing the end of our six hours so we decided to make our way back. The last runs of the day ended up being some of our best photo ops.
We grabbed apres drinks at the rental shop again since we we dropping off our boards there for the night anyway. We tried out a different restaurant for dinner, Rodeo Drive. There was a group of six Europeans, probably in their 50s, who we overheard telling stories about their time in Japan and how “this culture doesn’t like when you’re as loud as us but we didn’t care and we were laughing and having a good old time…” I found some weird comfort in hearing there was someone being rude, inconsiderate, and frowned at by the locals and not having it be an American who was the guilty party.
Yoko was around in the main area of the house the next morning. She offered us some coffee and we sat with her for a few minutes while we drank that. She asked how we were getting back to Sapporo and I told her the name of the bus. “There is a free bus from Rusutsu Resort. Do you want me to cancel your bus so you can take the free one?” I thought that bus was only for guests staying at the resort but she said otherwise. As for our booking, even if there was a 50% penalty for cancelling the day of, we would still save that other 50%. We said sure and she proceeded to call the bus line and the third-party company we booked through to try to cancel our bus for us. She was probably on the phone for 10-15 minutes before she hung up and said “there would be no refund if you cancel today.” Bummer. It didn’t work out for getting our money back but we still thought it was really nice of her to make the calls for us.
Once back on the slopes, we set out to explore the mountain on the close side of the main road. I heard they had a side-country terrain park with “natural wood features, like fallen trees, built into the hillside” and I wanted to try my luck with them. Normally I’m slightly intimidated by the terrain parks because I have very little experience with them and I’m not super comfortable with that stuff, but because the mountain was so deserted there weren’t any of the park rats running around the judge me. We found the side-country features and they looked crazy but the lack of snow made the conditions pretty sketchy. I decided to be happy just seeing them built into the mountain and to not hurt myself so I didn’t attempt any of them.
We did more trail runs the second day and found a few little trees to dip into but our muscles were tired from the day before so we didn’t push it too much. We spent the day trying out a few new trails and seeing that the mountain was actually a little bigger than we anticipated. It was a gloomy, colder day so we called it quits early to make sure we wouldn’t miss our bus back to Sapporo.
*Update: I became Facebook friends with the Canadian/Balinese guy from the restaurant the first night. Two days after we left, he posted saying it dumped 40cm of snow in the mountains. We almost had it…