By Steve Hubrecht
Nightly soaks in onsen hots springs, a restaurant with a robot cat server, top-notch sushi from convenience stories, a fire festival, a sumo wrestling tournament, a hidden back alley bar that you enter through a door that looks like a cigarette vending machine, a dinner out in a wedding dress and a Mickey Mouse hat, and — oh yeah — endless, fluffy, waist deep-powder snow pretty much every other week. It’s been a winter to remember for Blair McFarlane.
Blair, who is well known to a great many kids up and down the Columbia Valley as a librarian at the Invermere Public Library and as a ski instructor at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort ski hill, has been spending the season as a ‘ski nanny’ in Japan.
The opportunity came when Windermere residents James and Nadine Robb (who divide their time between the Columbia Valley and Japan, where they run a ski school and backcountry guiding business) decided they could use a hand with their two kids, Summer and Joey, for the winter. They posted on Facebook, looking for a live-in ski nanny. Blair applied for the job (and a three-month leave from her full-time position at the library) and presto, little more than a month later she was jetting across the Pacific.
Mention the word ‘Japan’ to ski bums the world over, and they immediately think ‘Hokkaido’ — Japan’s northernmost island, land of legendary powder snow. But that’s not where Blair is. Instead she joined the Robbs in Hakuba, a valley and village in the Japanese Alps on Honshu, Japan’s main island. It’s not as famous as Hokkaido and perhaps doesn’t get quite as much snow, but make no mistake — the powder is absurdly deep and absurdly abundant in Hakuba too. The mountains are steeper there, and it’s not quite as crowded as the big Hokkaido resorts.
Even though Blair is half a world away, the town of Hakuba is similar in many ways to Invermere, and the Japanese Alps are (aside from being covered with hardwood trees instead of conifers) are quite reminiscent of the Purcells.
“It reminds me a ton of home — ski towns are kind of universal, and draw similar kinds of people to them,” she said when the Pioneer talked to her across the Pacific. In winter, Hakuba is full of foreigners (particularly Australians and Brits) there to work in the ski industry, just like the Columbia Valley, and Blair has fast formed a circle of international friends.
Being a ski nanny is essentially a general nanny gig, with skiing on the side, described Blair. She helps out with the Robb family’s morning routine, getting the kids dressed, fed and out the door to hoikuen (a kind of Japanese day care) or to the ski hill. Some days she skis with the kids, other days she teaches ski lessons with Hakuba Ski Concierge (the ski school Nadine runs), and other times she’s off skiing on her own. In the afternoon she’s often with Summer and Joey again, playing and reading with them. She’s also finding time to continue working, remotely, for the Invermere Public Library, and — as if that weren’t enough — she’s also completing an online Master’s degree in Library and Information Science through the University of Alberta.
Busy? Yes, very much so, concedes Blair, quickly adding that although it’s a tricky balancing act “I can’t really complain about doing grad school work in Japan”.
In the evening it’s dinner with the Robb family, watching a movie with the kids, and then heading out to an onsen (Japanese hot spring) to soak with friends, and perhaps hitting up some of Hakuba’s bars and restaurants. Or to bed early (not from exhaustion mind you, but more so to be up early and catch the first chairlift the next day).
Spending so much time with Summer and Joey has been a great experience, said Blair. “Both kids are little rippers on the mountain…Joey (age four) is fearless and loves the jumps and boxes. Summer (age six) was tearing up the powder down a black diamond run with me the other day.”
Blair has been a staple of the Fairmont ski school for more than a decade, and has found she loves being a ski instructor in Japan just as much. So far, in Hakuba, she’s taught Australians, Swedes, Americans, Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, Thais and a family from Qatar who are originally from Hungary (and who had, remarkably, driven through Invermere once, years before). “It’s been cool meeting people from all over the world and helping them learn how to ski,” Blair told the Pioneer.
There are ten ski resorts in the Hakuba valley, all interconnected by bus. Although each only has about 15 to 20 runs, together they pack a collective punch, and many of them conveniently have chairlifts right to gates leading to the backcountry.
And the backcountry is where Hakuba goes from great to exceptional. The snowpack is generally much more stable in Hakuba than in B.C. (although there is still avalanche risk), and Blair has been skiing backcountry in Japan much more than she ever has at home.
Her first foray off the resort was memorable: a storm had deposited 40 centimetres (cm) of fresh powder, prompting a 40-minute hike with a group of Canadian, English and German friends. Blair is fit, but struggled to keep pace, her heart thumping and legs burning. Then the descent: floating down through snow unlike anything in Canada, whizzing through birch and beeches trees with their branches spreading out overhead into snow-coated canopies. Clumps of bamboo bushes poked through the powder. Cutting through the ultra-dry snow was like slicing through silk.
“It was amazing. Awesome. You just fly through. It really is like floating,” said Blair.
The quaint nature of Hakuba suits Blair just fine, she said.
“I think in North America generally there’s the impression that Japan is super high tech and advanced, but that’s not really the case (outside the cites). There is some cool tech stuff but everyone largely uses cash, everything is done on paper forms and through fax. The ski hill infrastructure is quite old. Ski hills came into fashion here in the 1980s and not a lot has changed since. The lifts are quite old, lots of chairlifts don’t have a safety bar,” she said. “The benefit, though, is that skiing is much cheaper here — around $60 for a day pass at one resort, $75 for the pass that gets you onto all ten resorts in the valley. I don’t think I had any real set impressions of Japan, but travelling is a good reminder that while people eat different foods or organize things a bit differently, we’re all just people, and in Hakuba in particular, everyone is keen to ski or board and enjoy the mountains.”
That said, Blair has had some experiences in Hakuba that just wouldn’t have happened in Invermere, for instance, being served in a restaurant by a three-foot high cat-shaped robot waiter. Or the fact that ATMs are closed sometimes, because Japanese people believe machines need a rest too. Or finding a great ‘secret’ bar in a Hakuba back alley that is accessed by a door that is disguised as a cigarette vending machine. Blair and her friends thought it was, in fact, a cigarette vending machine. Then they watched another group of people walk up the ‘machine’ and slide it open, revealing a bar behind. Then there was the dinner Blair attended along with Nadine and another friend, in which she wore a wedding dress and a Mickey Mouse ball cap. Everybody was given 15 minutes and $15 to purchase an outfit for another member of the group. Hakuba has plenty of secondhand stores with great prices, and, as it turns out, some unusual dinner attire. “We were all out, dressing in these outfits — it was certainly a fun night,” recalled Blair.
The food in Hakuba has been delicious — yakiniku barbeque, top-notch ramen, Japanese curry and rice, and outstanding sushi everywhere, including from 7/11 and other local convenience stores.
There’s also the onsens – traditional Japanese hot springs.
“They are all over, and are a way different set up than Radium or Fairmont. First off, they are all nude baths — separated into men and women’s baths. You undress and have a shower first. Everyone gets very clean before they go in for a soak. It was a bit weird at first, but you get over it quickly and they are so nice after a day on the slopes,” explained Blair. “There’s around ten to fifteen in Hakuba alone. Some have little one-person tubs, most have a bigger pool for everyone. There’s one here with a beautiful view of the mountains and ski hills. They are also very cheap between $6 to ten dollars to get in.”
Blair has picked up a few Japanese phrases but has been surprised at how easy it is to get by in Hakuba just speaking English.
This winter was the first Christmas Blair has spent away from her family, and the holiday is not a big deal in Japan, but there still plenty of festive spirit, outlined Blair. The Robb family is Canadian, so their kids were amped up with excitement on Christmas morning. Later the family held a huge potluck dinner for all their ski school’s instructors, with roast chicken and the fixings (but sushi too).
Blair has been able to make a few trips beyond Hakuba: taking in a sumo wrestling tournament in Tokyo, visiting the old imperial capital of Kyoto, and going to the Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival. Kyoto was a blur of shrines, Japanese macaques, a bamboo forest, and cherry blossoms. The sumo tournament was a ton of fun, though Blair learned you need to pay close attention: most bouts last less than 10 seconds.
And the fire festival was something else entirely: each winter villagers in Nozawa Onsen spend days chopping down beech trees and building a 60-foot high wooden shrine. When evening falls on the festival night, the fun beings: all the villagers (and great many of the onlookers who have flocked to the town) consume liberal quantities of sake. Once the mood is jovial, the village parade in the direction of the shrine, all bearing large bamboo torches, which are blazing. It it the job of all 25-year-old and 42-year old village men to defend the shrine from the fire-wielding villagers. The 42-years olds perch on top of the shrine, singing songs and taunting the villagers. The 25-year-olds hang off a lower level of the shrine by ropes and use pine boughs to battle back the villagers and to put out any parts of the wooden structure that catch alight.
“The songs are going full tilt, there’s the torches, the sake, and there are fireworks going off everywhere at the same time,” said Blair. “It’s pretty crazy, but it was amazing to watch.”
And yes, she noted, the next day people have scratches and minor burns. But it’s all in good fun and apparently participants are rarely badly hurt.
After about an hour or so, the shrine is properly ablaze, and the 25-year-olds and 42-year-olds clamber down and abandon their defence of the structure. Everybody and has a big party while one of the largest bonfires you will ever see roars away in the middle of the town square. By midnight, there’s nothing left but ashes, and the festivities wind down.
Blair will be back in Canada later this month, and although it’s been perhaps the best winter of her life, she said she is eager to see her family in the Columbia Valley and is also looking forward to catching up with her library co-workers, and “all my little library friends”.