I can’t sleep. The Seahawks lost the Super Bowl yesterday and I keep replaying the final interception in my mind. What a shame. We were so close. How do you get over such a crushing disappointment? I guess flying to Japan for two weeks of powder skiing isn’t a bad option.
The lady at the Japan Airlines check-in counter looks exasperated when I slide my ski bag onto the scale, but I’m .7 pounds under the 50-pound limit so she can't charge me a dime. My ski boots hang from knotted laces around my neck and the TSA guy shoots me a you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-joking glance. The duty free mall reeks of bad chocolate and worse cologne. Are airports the same everywhere? There’s an aquarium near the food court with rockfish, anemone, and undulating eelgrass. Tess says her dentist told her that fish calm the nerves. The stress of preparation melts away gradually. Tension leaves my shoulders. Embarking is always a relief.
It’s hot and stuffy in the fuselage, but it’s raining bathtubs outside and the sky’s the same color as the tarmac. Droplets pool together on the window and bounce down like Plinko chips. We taxi past a field of cattails and accelerate. My back presses against the seat and the droplets zip across the window like shooting stars. I feel the wheels lift off. We’re in the clouds for a few seconds, but then we punch through a layer into blue sky. “It’s always sunny somewhere,” says Freya.
The moist towelette they give us smells like detergent. Freya’s watching a Channing Tatum flick and I’m reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. I bought it because a website said it was in the top echelon of Japanese literature. Dinner’s served—a breaded chicken thing with rice noodles. After they remove the dishes, a stewardess presses a button and the windows fade to darker and darker blue, tinting at the speed of a sunset. Tess walks past on her way to the bathroom and says, “Hey guys. We’re going to Japan!” like she can hardly believe it. She’s right. It’s pretty fucking cool. But the blue screen in front of me says it's 8 more hours to Tokyo. I flip on the overhead light and get back to Murakami.
There’s bamboo next to the runway in Tokyo. We have a few hours here before our flight to Osaka, so it’d be a good idea to eat. Freya and I decide to share a bowl of kakiage udon, but when the steaming bowl plops out and they yell my number the soup looks too good to share. I tell Freya she’ll have to get her own. I slurp greedily.
Another liftoff. Arteries of pulsing light cut swaths through patches of black. Tokyo’s an orange glow in the distance. The engines hum. We cruise over peninsulas and jetties and spits of light. There are freighters and fishing boats too—dots of light in a black expanse. It’s the wee hours in Bellingham right now and I still haven’t slept a wink. The plane’s nearly empty and I could probably lay horizontal on the four center seats if I wanted to, but it’s only an hour flight and I need to be sharp when we land in Osaka because we don’t know where we’re going to sleep. Hopefully we can find a secluded corner in the airport and stretch out on our Therm-A-Rest pads. I order coffee and go back to the Wind-Up Bird.
Apparently all the buildings in the airport are closed at night. We’ve asked half a dozen people and all of them say we’re not allowed to sleep here. We have an hour before security kicks us out on the street. Can we sleep on the street with two ski bags, one snowboard bag, three 49-pound checked bags, three backpacks, and three pairs of boots hanging from our necks? It’s probably not a good idea, but the airport hotel is $170 per night and we’re far too cheap to shell out that kind of money. According to Booking.com, the cheapest hotel within a reasonable distance is the Fine Garden—$90 a night. The taxi driver sees our luggage and immediately waves over a second taxi. He folds his passenger seat down like he would if he wanted to take a nap and slides our ski bags inside. I squeeze into the first cab while Freya and Tess hop in the other. When we’re a hundred yards down the street the taxi driver says, “You know Fine Garden is motel.” What do you mean? He pauses, searching his English vocabulary for a more descriptive word. “It’s a love hotel,” he says, finally. “You know? It’s for loving.” I’m still laughing when we drag our bags into the lobby. A romantic ballad serenades us. The receptionist glances at Freya and Tess, and then tosses me a smile that says you’re a very bad boy. Just give me the keys. I open the door into our room made for loving. There are two condoms, a red feather, an eye mask, and a handy massager on a platter next to the bed. There are mirrors everywhere. There’s a TV next to the bathtub, a massage chair next to the closet, and Freya thinks she spots a creamy stain on the polished stone floor. It hardly matters to us. There will be no loving tonight. It takes me fifteen minutes to figure out how to work the all-kanji remote that controls the lights, television, heater, air conditioner, and stereo. Finally it’s dark and quiet. “Maybe the walls are soundproof,” says Freya. Makes sense.
The sky’s all pastel pinks and blues with clouds like lily pads in a mirrory pond. The screen at gate D70 says it’s -16 C in Sapporo. Did I bring enough clothing? This is our last flight and then we have a two-hour bus ride to Rusutsu. Yesterday’s adventure was fun, if exhausting. I don’t mind getting into a bit of trouble here and there. At the same time, I’m ready to stop transferring and be stationary for a bit. I’m ready to go skiing.
There are snow-capped mountains and volcanoes in the window. One volcano—Mt. Yotei—is the ideal shape. Adam says it’s exactly what a child would draw if you asked him or her to draw a volcano. There’s acre upon acre of uncut snow on the sides of the narrow road. The trees are all deciduous and they’re spaced perfectly for rhythmic turns. As the bus carries us deeper into the mountains, excitement rushes through me. We’re in Japan. Powder covers everything. It’s sunset by the time we reach our hotel at Rusutsu Resort, which means it’s way past my bedtime in Bellingham, but there are floodlights bathing the groomers and we came here for a single reason. We toss our luggage in the room, pull out our goggles, and take the monorail to the base of the lifts. The cold brushes my cheeks, but I barely feel it. We ride the lift to the top, push off with our poles, and carve into the night.