Hakuba Matata and the capsule hotel

Some months previously, a friend from Hong Kong, to whom I shall refer henceforth as “Steve” (mainly because that’s his name), had contacted me to find out my movements in Japan with the goal of our organising a joint skiing trip.

The stars (and, more concretely, our diaries) aligned and we set to planning.

Steve would meet me in Tokyo and we would catch a bullet-train to Hakuba – a relatively popular and easy-to-reach resort. He would bring extra gear for me (not a reference to narcotics) and I would book accommodation and trains. “Simples!” as my favourite meerkat would say.

Why you not make simples, Angliski idiots?

But it wasn’t. It was a comedy of errors. Firstly Steve’s arrival in Tokyo was hindered  by his leaving the train at the wrong station; easy to do when you speak no Japanese and are on you maiden voyage to the sprawling metropolis that is Tokyo; harder to excuse when you know your destination also happens to be the end of the line!

So, as we were cutting it fine to catch the train onto which I had booked us, when Steve eventually appeared, loaded with bags like some biped beast of burden, we had to sprint for the shinkansen platforms leaving, no doubt, some collateral damage in our wake.

Steve 1:0 John

I have no photos of what I’ve just written. Here is a picture I took of a tree

We made our train with a minute or two to spare, collapsed sweatily into our seats then finally greeted each other. “Hi mate! How are you?” And so began the updates which, after an 8-month schism, were lengthy.

So lengthy were they that when we reached our stop, Nagano, we were still chatting and, when realisation dawned, had to bolt for the door. “Phew!”

Roughly a minute after the train we had been on departed, I realised that my JR Pass was in the seat pocket rather than in my own.

Steve 1:1 John

The next two hours were spent explaining to a bemused Japanese Rail employee through mime and Google translate what exactly had transpired. Eventually, armed with a number to call in Kanazawa, the terminus of our train, we departed for Hakuba on a coach.

Great view but it should have been much whiter

There had been little snowfall in the resort and, whilst the higher, more technically-demanding slopes were open, the lower, beginner slopes were too sparsely covered as to allow for safe use. This had the effect of pushing beginners onto challenging slopes which were already overcrowded due to the limited number of open runs. Whilst this provided untold Schadenfreude as a spectacle, it made navigating a route down extremely hazardous.

The hordes has congregated on the upper slopes

Both Steve and I, on occasion, used hapless learners to slow our impetus and, in return, increase theirs.

Little did I know that in order to bring me a spare jacket, Steve had robbed a highway maintenance van
Steve: “Try not to look so luminous!” Me: “Try not to be such a #+$!”
 

The accommodation I had chosen turned out to be run by a group of affable, but betimes anarchic, Aussies. They were great fun and accepted us readily into the fold. I’ll spare you some of the details (because I can’t recall them) but New Year’s Eve got fairly messy. One of the aforementioned Aussies launched a rocket in celebration…. Straight into the (expensive) coat pocket of one of our fellow guests – a well-to-do Hong Kong lady. Once certain she was not on fire, she took it remarkably well.

In the morning, that we had got home was not under debate. How we had got home was less clear…..

As we were preparing to drive to the bus station and thither to Nagano, we spotted something familiar in a rack outside. It was my snowboard and Steve’s skis! We sprang out of the van and, exchanging a look, dragged them on board with us.

Steve 2:2 John

On reaching the bus to Nagano, Steve fished in his wallet for the return half of his ticket. He had thrown it away thinking it was a receipt.

Steve 3:2 John

Back at Nagano I discovered I would have to endure a 6-hour round trip to Kanazawa on the west coast to collect my JR Pass before rejoining Steve in Tokyo. (Thanks to Yoko, my Kyoto friend, for actually arranging the whole thing.)

Steve 3:~50 John 

To give Steve a Japan photo in which he wasn’t entirely hidden by skiing gear, I took him to the famous pedestrian crossing in Shibuya for the iconic middle-of-the-road (literally) picture and some dinner.

Steve was hoping to use the Forever 21 billboard as subliminal messaging

Steve left ridiculously early the next morning. I had planned a trip to Kyushu for the following day but had 24 hours to kill in Tokyo. So what did I do? Well, to be honest this should have featured in the unique experiences of Tokyo part: I checked into a capsule hotel. For a lengthier review, check out Becky the traveler’s thoughts.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of capsule hotels and too lazy to clock the explanatory link, they are basically row upon row of storage units for humans. In Tokyo, where space is at a premium and people often work too late to be able to get home in the evening, these places meet a real need.

On arrival I was assigned one locker for my shoes and a larger one for my bags and prompted to don the clothes provided by the hotel for its patrons. This consisted of a quasi-monastic, brown top and brown trousers designed to fit any body-shape. It was comfortable in a way the far-too-small reed slippers provided were not.

Brothers of the Capsule order gather for vespers in the communal area
This season’s colours will be earthen tones
 

I took the lift to the seventh floor and was welcomed by this:

Just say to yourself, “The Matrix was just a film. The Matrix was just a film….”

Each capsule was two metres in length and, stretched out I found that my head touched one end and my toes the shutter at the other end. By lying diagonally, however, I fit very snugly.

My personal pod
 
Just a demonstration. I don’t sleep with my socks on. Honest!

The quality of the facilities was inversely proportionate to the size of the sleeping pods. There was an onsen, clothes washing facilities, a library, TVs, computers, free soft drinks, food vending machines, all sorts of free lotions and potions and grooming tools. My favourite extra? They gave out free nostril-widening plasters to prevent snoring. They must have worked – I slept like a log.

I actually thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. Had I stayed for longer than a night or two it would have lost its novelty as frequent trips from seventh to ground floor to change clothes or get forgotten items would have been tedious. But for a night or two? Brilliant!

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