wandering amphibia

Best winters – who says they’re in Canada?

Well, that’s probably a verrrry misleading title. I don’t think anyone in their right mind says that the best winters are in Canada. The longest, the darkest, the coldest, the snowiest… list goes on, but that list would probably not have the word “best” in it. I digress, though. Lest the respectable reader should think that I only write long rambling articles about annoyingly sunny, pleasant, hard to reach places, I will happily prove that wrong by writing a long, rambling article about being effectively buried in the snow for a week. Soldier on!!

This time, the subject of my diatribe is the northern part of Japan – Hokkaido, where it felt like a good opportunity to explore the snowy mountains, ski, and slush that inevitably plagues these kinds of places. Or does it?

 Hokkaido is generally a magical place. The spring and summer seasons are fabulous, with beautiful rolling hills of lavender, and other flowers that I can’t ever remember the names of. They have beef, potatoes, it’s really Japan’s farm more than anything – and long roads into nothing (well, not of the level of US 50 in Nevada, but still). In summer, it looks something like this:

And like this:

In winter… well, the colours are definitely a little bit more muted. But let’s start with my car rental. You see, there are obviously the Tier-1 rental firms in Japan (none of which you’ve ever heard of – Nippon Rent-a-Car, Toyota Rent-a-car, Nissan Rent-a-Car, Oryx, etc etc etc). But just to make things more confusing, there is a plethora of Tier-9 rental providers, which basically pick up cars at auctions, and run them into the ground renting them out to customers. This is particularly popular in very touristy areas like Okinawa, Hokkaido and others. They’re obviously much cheaper to rent, though, and so are immensely popular. So I rented from one of those – Quick Rent-a-Car (they also tend to have very uninventive company names – Apple, Flower, Super, Fast, etc – those are real company names, I feel like they’re borrowing the manities that make up Family Guy jokes in their off hours to come up with company names).

So a 4×4 Caldina, here it comes! With a broken headlight…

… and 200K on the odometer!!!

Weather was spectacular, so it was time to drive off to Westin Rusutsu, a property I wanted to try for a while.

Do notice something interesting, though. Roads in Hokkaido are clean. They’re properly cleared, and even if they melt, they do not use salt, so there is no slush or dirt on the roads. It’s truly a pleasure to drive (and it’s completely ridiculous when municipalities give stories about rough winter weather being at the root of their miserable roads, because if Hokkaido can do it with this kind of snow, why can’t others?!?).

On the way to Rusutsu, though, it occurred to me that Hokkaido is famous for what? 


What do cows make?


What do you do with milk?

MAKE ICE CREAM!!!!!!!!!!!!

I found the ice cream shop behind the snowbank!

The ice cream was as good as advertised. 

Kept driving after that. Passed by an interesting house that hopefully had nobody in it… like, ever.

And that’s Westin Rusutsu in the background. An imposing property, it was originally flagged something else, before SPG and Marriott took over them a few years ago.

It’s cool how Japan is set up for a car-free life, even in places that have no public transportation or easy access. Taxis feature ski racks that you can use to bring your equipment!

The Westin took good care of us, and we got a nice bi-level suite, which was incredibly hot and difficult to sleep in (and needed air conditioning), but space-wise, was great.

The resort is set up for both summer and winter activities, and in typical Japanese construction boom fashion (it was built in 1993, right at the tail end of the economic boom – but somehow, it managed to survive), it has a bunch of various rides, attractions and so on – to keep families happy where part of the family skis, and the other doesn’t. In a very smart move, though, the operator, rather than loading up on debt and throwing a bunch of attractions in from day 1, instead went and bought up all the bankrupt attractions around Japan (which all sprung up in 1990-1994, and all basically died by the second half of the 1990s), and installed them in Rusutsu. So it’s still not bankrupt!

There are also fake pseudo-European corridors and constructions, just to make people feel like they are in an international resort!

But yeah, the thing you’re probably most interested in. The slopes.

They are, without an argument, spectacular.

Now, to be fair, these aren’t the Alps, and the mountains aren’t kilometres and kilometres in height. But the runs are much more manicured, taken care of, and … “proper”. And of course, there are diamond and double diamond runs, and enough slopes to break your ankles on if you so desire – but also nice and long technical slopes to enjoy.

Another view of the ski runs:

All in all, properly kept ski slopes.

But that’s not all there is in Hokkaido, of course!

Having had enough skiing, we decided to go to the nearby town – Otaru. I had no idea what we would find there, but the road certainly was entertaining.

Once we got to Otaru, we came across something that’s very typically Japanese. A museum – dedicated to something ultra-niche, and ultra-specific… in the middle of nowhere… with an oddly impeccable collection. 

This museum was in honour of the movie star, Yujiro Ishihara, who was one of the most recognisable faces of post-war Japanese film, having appeared in a number of Nikkatsu action movies, and just generally played the role of the macho detective action hero. A sort of Japanese James Bond. He was born in Kobe, and only briefly spent time in Otaru, but for whatever reason, they built a whole museum for him.

Impressive entrance, of course.

Lots of movie posters, and a whole Yujiro Hall.

And of course, since he was the action hero figure … what to show other than cars, motorcycles, and gadgets!

The Skyline RS-Turbo does not mess around.

Interior? Buttons, buttons, buttons!!! And a full radar warning system.

The Fairlady Z? Gullwing doors, and machine guns, oh my!

The gullwings are most definitely a one-off conversion.

Nice ’80s interior.

The Nissan Gazelle convertible certainly deserves mention, as well. 

Observe the same telephone installed in all three cars, too, and ohhh that awful cloth interior. The 80s were a glorious time.

Ohh that boxy silhouette.

Absolutely glorious collection. I really can’t say enough for random museums in Japan celebrating obscure things that certain audiences (like the older Japanese who remember these 1960s-70s movies, as well as hardcore Nikkatsu fans) will absolutely adore, and others (i.e. everyone else) will be completely perplexed about.

We also stopped by a grocery store that was selling mail order delivery snow crabs.

They were neither cheap (~$300-500 for a crab) …

…. nor exactly compact …

… but apparently if you ordered one, they could ship it anywhere inside Japan, or you could just take it as carryon onto the plane. I’m not even kidding. I’m also entirely unclear whether they would pre-steam it, or if you’d just kinda … you know, take it along in a grocery bag. Crabs on the plane? Hollywood is bereft of movie ideas, and it’s fashionable to reboot every franchise, so maybe Samuel Jackson is waiting for a call?