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Saturday, March 24, 2007


If it looks like yesteryear, you know you're skiing in Japan

After a winter in Hokkaido, I feel at home skiing on the mountains here. Sometimes I even forget I am in Japan, until something "only in Japan" happens.

Teine ski area in Hokkaido
A ferris wheel sits atop a slope at Teine ski area in Hokkaido. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

You know you're skiing in Japan when:

* You see a Ferris wheel on the ski slope. Yep, a Ferris wheel! Many ski areas in Japan double as amusement parks in the summer time. The gondola lifts are used to transport people up the mountain and the wide open spaces at a ski area can accommodate big rides such as roller coasters and invariably, a Ferris wheel.

* There are escalators inside the ski lodge of the Teine ski area outside Sapporo. The motto at Teine, with its three-story lodge, is "Always hot and heating up." Not bad for a local ski area with just 15 runs. These runs are serviced by 12 lifts, including an eight-person gondola and a tramway. At the top of the mountain, you'll find, naturally, a Ferris wheel.

* You're skiing under stadium lights. Lights used for night skiing are often large panels of lights like those you'd find in a sports stadium. They are so bright, you expect a round of applause after your run. Or at least for those riding the chairlift to do "the wave."

* You come across a ski technique "competition." In Japan, where form is everything, they actually have competitions where judges grade recreational skiers on their technique. The average Taro can become a card carrying member of "technique."

* You see a guy in 20-year old ski equipment. It's hard to find a used ski shop in Japan, and the reason is obvious -- the Japanese are loathe to part with their old ski gear, bringing new meaning to the word "latest equipment" -- it's certainly the latest back I can remember anyway.

* Every day you can see dozens of skiers in "rear-entry" boots, a model sold only in the 1980s. Twenty-year-old boots! 20-year-old foot fungus!

These boots are clamped into old bindings mounted on "straight skis" which were the norm until about a decade ago when dramatic changes in ski technology changed the face of skiing.

* Skiing in old corroded bindings with sprung springs that no longer release, I wouldn't be so afraid of skiing in this equipment as dying in it. It's a good thing the Japanese cremate the deceased since there is no telling whether this equipment would ever come off.

* You'll also see people in ski outfits from the neon era. My theory is that they're trying to save from having to take more ski photos of themselves, since without updated ski clothing and equipment, all the photos would look the same. So why take new ones? Besides, even if you did take photos every year in the same clothes for 20 years, someone would say something like, why don't you dry clean that photo?

Why are these Japanese people, who are staying in five-star hotels, skiing on outdated equipment? My guess is that they are revisiting the bubble era. Or maybe they are just dreaming of skiing, and not actually doing it. You know how sometimes you wake up some morning from a dream that was so real, it seems it had to have happened? Maybe these Japanese people are dreaming, and we, unknowingly, have entered their dreams. When they get to the bottom of the mountain they will wake up -- in their beds -- or in a Ferris wheel.

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