Our plans for ringing in the 2009 New Year were pretty simple and traditional: a nice family meal of homemade soba and more ***** (sukiyaki, a dish eaten nabe-style). My experience making the soba this time went much better than it did two years ago. Avoiding lumps while mixing the water into the buckwheat, and then rolling it out smoothly to avoid lumps and holes prior to cutting the noodles, both require a bit of patience and skill. I may not have been more skilled than I was two years ago, but I think I was a little more patient this time, so the result was quite favorable. My future sister-in-law, Hiroka, is a schoolteacher (Sensei) by trade, so she’s well practiced in patience with learners (Sei) like me and Coku, the exchange student from Vietnam who’s been living with Yuka’s family for the last couple months. We made some nice soba and got cooking on apartments in amsterdam, eating the sukiyaki, which this time included some nice Australian beef provided by Yuka’s uncle, and lots of wonderful vegetables and tofu. As per custom, each of us had our own little dish of dipping “sauce”, consisting of one raw egg, lightly beaten, with optional soy sauce. By the time for the countdown drew near, we were all pretty well full and content. Oto-san isn’t all that concerned with seeing in the New Year, and he went to bed not much past 11:30 or so. We sat around lazily, joking and laughing, and when the time came we counted down the seconds ’til the New Year arrived, bringing Yuka’s birthday along with it.
I had a couple gifts for her that I’d picked up back in the States before I left, but in addition I’d had some help from Oto-san. When he’d been out on errands earlier in the day, he stopped off and picked up a nice bouquet for Yuka. When he returned home, he asked me to come out to the car, where he showed me the bouquet and told me that once midnight struck, I should come out to the car and get the flowers for her, and give them to her as a gift from me. So just before we all reconvened at the table to play some more games, I asked Hiroka if I could borrow her car keys and went out for the bouquet. Yuka was quite surprised and happy, and put the flowers in a nice vase. She also opened one of her birthday gifts from me, not long before we all decided to turn in for the night, so we would be able to get up at a decent hour to head over to Obaa-chan’s home to ring in the New Year with the extended family.
We woke up early the next morning and sat down together for a nice osechi breakfast (h/t: Moye for the link). After eating, we all got ourselves good and ready, then took the half-hour drive down the road (over the hill, through the woods, and all that) to Grandma’s house. When we arrived, we got busy helping out, getting the house ready, setting up tables for all the friends and family members who were arriving in small waves. The crowd consisted of many of the same faces I dined with for New Year’s two years ago. We had some more osechi, along with a few big trays of delicious assorted sashimi, and basically spent the day eating, talking, and laughing together. After many hours and many good laughs, most of us were pretty well worn out. We headed back home for the evening, where we had to finish packing all of our gear for the ski trip to Inawashiro, where Oto-san grew up. I was able to borrow a complete ski suit from Yuka’s aunt, and was very happily oblivious the entire time on the slopes about how silly I looked. No one else minded, why should I?
We were on the road by 6 AM on the second of January, ready to pick up cousins Taihei and Yui, who would join us on the slopes. I managed to catch a few extra Zs on the road, and we were able to hit the slopes probably by 11 AM or so. I hadn’t been on skis since I was a teenager, probably well before I ever drank any alcohol or smoked cigarettes… so at least 15 years ago, I suppose. We took a little practice run down the bunny slope and I was surprised at how comfortable I felt on the skis. I had one small wipe-out, but just fine about it. Next we went down a slightly more challenging slope, to the left off of the main lift, which also worked out fairly well. I didn’t crash this time, but I started to notice that I was skiing much faster than pretty much everyone else on the slopes. Oh well, so long as I didn’t plow over anyone, things should be alright. On our next trip down, we went to the right off the lift, and I quickly found out that it was a much steeper slope than the other path. As I’d done before, I basically went full speed ahead, and it didn’t take me long at all to completely lose control and go tumbling down the hill. I went down pretty hard, losing my skis and my poles, and felt a pain in my knee somewhere during the fall. Whether I was hit with a ski or just bent my leg the wrong way, I don’t know. But I knew that my knew wasn’t feeling too hot, and I hoped it was just a bruise. I managed eventually to get down to the bottom of the hill, firmly resolving not to go to the right off the ski lift again any time soon. Yuka’s brothers, and even her little cousins, are pretty skilled skiers. With a little coaching from her brother, Yuka was catching back on pretty quickly, too. As her brother tried to give me pointers when I was struggling down that steep slope, he even went as far as to say, “See that little kid over there? Do it the way he’s doing it…”
After a couple more times down the easier slope, Coku and I were ready to take a lunch break and give the others a chance to ski the slopes they wanted, without us holding them up. We joined up with Okaa-san in the lounge at the foot of the hill and dug into some nice hot curry, and were later joined by some of the others as they came down to eat too. We then got back on the slopes, and Coku and I kept to the novice hill for the rest of the afternoon. The slopes closed at four, but I think that they reopened later for night skiing. I don’t know about everyone else, but I’d had about enough skiing for the day, and was ready to lay down for a while!
As for our accommodations for the evening, we had called ahead to a nearby pension, and the owners hadn’t planned on being open, due to the New Year’s holiday. When they learned that there were ten of us in the group, however, they agreed to put us up for the night. We drove around the small town until we found the place, where we were met with friendly greetings and invited to hang up all of our snow gear in a special little room that had a heater going, so it would all be dry come morning. We found our way to the four bedrooms we would be sharing, very traditional Japanese style accommodations, tatami mat floors and thin sliding doors of paper and wood. We carried in our bags, drank some tea, and played cards for a bit before going down for our dinner.
By the time dinner was over, my banged-up knee and my cramped foot were really screaming. Luckily the bathing room had an onsen-quality hot bath that I was able to soak in for a while, hoping to draw out some of the pain. Instead, I think it just brought up my blood pressure. I hoped a night of rest would take care of me, as I didn’t want to try to back down from skiing the next day and be a total party pooper, but I was growing concerned that I might not feel up to it. By morning, my aches and pains hadn’t worn off much but I had found some renewed gusto, and we got out there for another good day on the slopes. Toward the end of the day, my knee was beginning to make it difficult to make the best use of my right leg in my skiing maneuvers. I was glad to have come out though, and my technique was certainly improving. On my last time up the ski lift, with Yui as my companion, I happened to notice about halfway up the hill that there was a stocking cap on the ground directly below the lift.
“Is that Coku’s hat?” I asked Yui. “Coku no booshi desu ka?” Before she had much chance to respond, I saw a skinny young man trudging down the hill to the right of the lift, with no hat and only one ski. The other ski was probably about ten yards ahead of him. “Coku,” we shouted. He looked up and waved, nearly falling in the process. As we got to the top of the hill, Yui indicated that we were going to have to go down the right side, to help Coku. Having neither the Japanese skills nor the desire to try to explain to a pre-teen girl that I was scared to go down that slope again, I went ahead and broke right when we got off the lift, and worked hard to employ all the best of what I’d learned over our two days on the slopes. Still, I was going way too fast, and managed to crash part of the way down to where Coku had been. At least I was doing a little better than the day before, and had made it further before the crash. I got my skis back on and took off again, and before long I was tumbling down the hill again, this time leaving one of my skis a dozen yards behind me or so. Yui snagged in on her way, and dropped it off by me before sliding on over to Coku, who was only a few yards further down the hill, and way off to the right side. Yui helped him while struggled to get my skis back on. I was having too much trouble, and my knee was hurting bad enough that I worried I just plain didn’t have the strength in my right leg to snap the boot into place on the ski. After fumbling around with it for a while, I finally gave in and decided to walk down to the part of the hill that could be called a landing if it were a set of stairs. I got my skis back on and made it the rest of the way down the hill, just in time to find Coku and Yui so we could go meet the others at the rendezvous spot.
The ride home was nice, but I only managed sleep very briefly on the way. Okaa-san was driving the first leg of the trip, and she’s not what you would call a speed demon. At one point I gradually woke up from napping and happened to glance at the speedometer, and was shocked to see that she was only driving 40. That’s km/h, mind you. Apparently Hiroka noticed at the same time, as she tapped her mom on the shoulder and pointed at the speedometer, which seemed to help a bit. I paid attention for the next fifteen or twenty minutes and saw that she mostly kept it between 50 and 60 km/h, on a few select occasions breaking 60, but most of the time hovering just above 50. Before long, we pulled off the highway for a bathroom break, and when we got back on the road, Hiroka took the wheel. Not more than a few kilometers back on the road, though, we ran into some bumper-to-bumper traffic. Soon the folks from the other vehicle called us from a pay phone (between the ten people in two cars, there was only one cell phone) to ask where we were. They’d left us in the dust long ago. They told us where to get off to meet them, so we could take the back roads the rest of the way and avoid the traffic.
We dropped Yui and Taihei off at their home, along with my ridiculously masculine snowsuit, and then went out for Chinese food as my last meal with the whole family. There was some confusion and frustration about what was on the menu and how we were splitting the dishes (family style versus individual orders), but all worked out in the end. The food was very tasty, and Masaki graciously offered to get the bill. We returned home, unpacked our gear, and drank some tea together. I gathered my belongings and got everything packed, glad to brought less on this trip than my last.
I slept well and woke up refreshed, even if I was still a bit sore from skiing. After a quick shower and breakfast, we said some good-byes and took some group pictures out in front of the house. We only took one carload to the airport, Yuka and I along with her parents. It was a quiet three-hour drive, with Tsukaba-san approaching gradually on our left side then retreating behind us to our right. I even managed to spot Fuji-san on the horizon, so incredibly faint that one had to concentrate to avoid losing him. We arrived at Narita and I checked in, learning that my flight was delayed by an hour. That bought us a bit more time to have a nice lunch together in one of the airport restaurants, followed by some casual shopping in the overpriced duty-free and souvenir shops. When the time came for me to pass through the security checkpoint, we took a few more pictures together, and then exchanged our good-byes. Much like last time I left, Oto-san’s embrace when he hugged me good-bye spoke volumes that we may never have the language to share with one another. Yuka and I kissed good-bye, and after going through the metal detectors, they followed me down the corridor, separated from me be a glass partition, and waved enthusiastically as I descended the stairs to the departure gates. One more trip to Japan down, and hopefully many more to come.
As the plane climbed toward cruising altitude, I looked out the window, back at the place I was leaving. The winter sunset painted the sky red, and after the plane leaned to the right and then straightened back out, I saw Fuji-san resting proudly on the horizon.Now at the end i have to say that the best trip i had in Japan was a short cruise i took with Groove Cruise. Mata atodei, Fuji-san. I’ll see you again soon.