Some ALTs from the nearby town of Yonezawa had taken it upon themselves to play host to gaijin from all over Yamagata for a weekend of revelry. First on the agenda was a trip to Tengendai Kogen ski resort on saturday. I'm keen to check this place out; while it is only small (about 0.5Cg), the word on the street is that it has the best powder around. However, while everyone else flocked to Tengendai, I headed up to Zao on my own. I'm concerned that this move has been perceived as rather antisocial by my contemporaries, so allow me to pointlessly defend my decision here:
- I have my Zao Ekusaitingu (exciting) 10 ticket, and due to back injuries and weekend speech contest sessions, I had only actually used two of my ten prepaid days. So I'm somewhat reluctant to pay to go anywhere else until I've milked that ticket dry, or at least demonstrated to my own satisfaction that I will have sufficient opportunity to do so.
- They were planning to go for the afternoon only, which strikes me as shamefully softcore. Of course, there was nothing to stop me going in the morning and meeting them up there.
- So, the real crux of the issue: I think I actually prefer to snowboard alone. Well, let me qualify that. If you have people who you get on well with, who are of a similar level of competence as yourself, and with a similar attitude to snowsports, then it's really nice to have the company. Weaving in and out of each others' tracks is fun, and it's good to have someone to chat to on the chairlift. Even then, you need to have an understanding that anyone can go off and do their own thing at any time without fearing recriminations. It's not easy to get into this magical sweet spot of snowboarding harmony, and as the size of your group increases the chance of it occurring drops exponentially. If you just go with some random assortment of people, you'll probably spend all your time hanging around, waiting for decisions to be made, and fighting your growing resentment of the person who refuses to go on anything harder than a blue run. And you can forget about going to a park. So, I'd rather not take that risk, and consequently I enjoy going solo. Come to think of it, this paragraph reflects my attitude to relationships pretty much perfectly.
Feeling guilty about being so antisocial, I decided to meet up with the rest of the crew for dinner in Yonezawa. The 15km trip took an hour due to the blizzard conditions that had set in. Dinner came in the form of my second visit to a baikingu (Viking) restaurant – an all-you-can-eat buffet with a surprisingly wide selection of food for 2000yen. (I'm not sure why it's called 'Viking'; maybe they're thinking of smorgasbords?) The highlights are make-your-own crepes, and yakiniku (literally, 'grilled meat'), whereby you have a little grill recessed into you table and you help yourself to raw pieces of meat that you then barbecue yourself. Of course, it's hard to leave without a painfully distended stomach and a deep feeling of disgust at your own gluttony.
I didn't partake in the evening's revelry because I was driving, and I had a speech contest session at 08:30 on sunday. But once that was out of the way, I rejoined the growing crowd of gaijin for the main attraction: the firewalking festival. A little temple in the woods outside Yonezawa was hosting this event. It was quite a scene: the temple and surrounding trees were covered in a thick layer of snow, and big fat flakes were continually tumbling down from the sky. It reminded me of the end of Kill Bill part 1. Contrasting this muted winter setting were colourful kanji banners, priests in bright yellow robes, and a huge bonfire. We each paid our 500yen, which bought us a cup of hot, sweet rice drink; some kind of paper lucky charm that would supposedly offer specific protection against house-fires; and - most importantly – the right to walk across some burning wood.
Once the flames died down the priests flattened out the bonfire into a five or six metre long pathway, all the while solemnly chanting and drumming. One of the priests was the first to walk it, clasping his hands serenely in front of his chest and proceeding to stride across with a relaxed, unhurried gait. He didn't burst into flames, so it was deemed safe for the punters.
We all lined up, the foreigners respectfully hanging back to let to locals have their turn first. Although we knew there was no real danger – they were letting anyone over the age of seven firewalk – there was quite a lot of nervous joking around in the queue. As our turns drew nearer, we took off our boots and stood barefoot on the snow, which really is quite uncomfortable.
When my turn came, I was determined to push the envelope by walking as slowly as possible over the coals. I put my hands in the prayer position, adopted my best peaceful Zen face, and waited for the priest to slap me on the back to tell me to go. When he did, I strode out at a languorous pace. It wasn't too hot – the magic of specific heat capacity worked. The trouble is, the heat builds up. About three quarters of the way across, my foot started to feel distinctly hot. Someone watching me said that he saw a grimace flash across my Face of Zen, and I completed the last two steps of my spiritual journey in a rather less composed manner than I began it. I think someone was filming, but I haven't seen the video yet.
Anyway, I emerged unscathed. I had dirtied my soles but cleansed my soul. Some people (men, of course) felt the need to push the zenvelope further, and ended up actually blistering their feet with their ponderous firewalks. Idiots.