Let it snow!

By on December 1, 2011
Photo © Elena Derevtsova
The edge slices a thin layer of crystals off the snow that opens like a Japanese fan in front of my face.  The carving sound signals the proximity of the other skier and potential peril.  In a split second, it is quiet and tiny ice crystals decorate my face and enter my eyes, nose, and mouth.  I am startled and invigorated.  

It’s a week before the New Year’s holiday at a ski resort in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido.  The setting stirs my senses:  soaring conifers with white icing, birches with pale trunks, cold odorless air, popular music from ski lift speakers dampened by the pillows of snow, and bundled skiers in a rainbow of colors against a white-green-brown mountain landscape.

I’m not expecting any surprises on this trip and am hoping to avoid a spectacular injury.  For the past six years we have taken a family ski vacation.  We all want deep snow, clean air, hot baths, delicious, hearty food and rest from our routines.  We all expect to have fun and that I will be the least skilled skier in our family.  

My children and I learned to ski at the same time.  After scheduling lessons for them, I took lessons so that in time we would ski together.  The kids learned quickly and by our third ski trip they were cruising green, blue, red, and even black runs.  They were fearless and relaxed on the slopes while I remained on the beginner hills reaching a plateau of semi-controlled trepidation.  

Enter my husband and the father of my children who comes from a long line of recreational skiers and semi-professional ice skaters.  Watching my husband ski, one might deduce that he learned to walk with skis strapped to his baby feet.  At one hundred eighty-eight centimeters tall, he looks like a graceful adult bear on hind legs thundering down the mountain.  He makes skiing look effortless; his legs are like massive tree trunks that would not waver in katabatic wind.

Our kids have taken after their father in developing skiing prowess early in life.  My daughter is a miniature version of her dad in form, with splashes of pink and a golden ponytail.  My son skis like a race car driver on a straight away:  directly down and as fast as possible.  He finishes with a dramatic hockey stop just in the nick of time.  I hold my breath when I watch him but I can’t close my eyes; I‘m sure that my stillness and undivided attention will keep him safe.

We can’t get all our layers and gear on fast enough on the first morning.  Over an early breakfast, we devise a plan for the day.  

“Do you guys want to go skiing with me?” my husband opens with his usual query to the kids.

“Dad, let’s ride the gondola to the top of the mountain and ski the black diamonds,” my son says.  

“Are you going to stay on the beginner hill the whole time, mom?” my daughter asks.

“Probably,” I say.

“I think it’s cute that you ski the bunny slope,” my son says.  

Our discussion ends with a compassionate plot to warm up with me and then go on an adventure with dad.  I’m not surprised; I have spent a lot of time alone on family ski trips.    

My son doesn’t worry about me; he is preoccupied with his impending battle with the mountain.  My daughter gets a boost from being the littlest but not the least capable skier in the family.  My husband wonders why I bother; why I continue to ski when I get little satisfaction from it.  After watching me ski from a post farther down the slope one year, he said, “You don’t look like you’re having fun.”  This year he suggested that I relax at the resort and enjoy the onsen instead of skiing.  I considered it, but not for long.  I didn’t want to quit.  Had the Japanese spirit of ganbaru taken hold of my heart?

The polite Japanese expression, ganbatte kudasai, implores someone to do their best and hang in there.  At children’s games in Japan, mothers perch on their tip toes and call to their children, “Ganbatte kudasai, ganbatte kudasai!”   They are song birds whose high pitched tones are quickly detected by their brood.  My Japanese language teacher always gives me encouragement with a tender “Ganbatte kudasai” whenever I’m on the brink of giving up.

    I wasn’t expecting any surprises on this ski trip but I got one.  It all started with a question I posed to my daughter, “Do you put your weight on your downhill ski or uphill ski when you turn?”  She looked at me with her big, brown, doe eyes but she didn’t answer.  Skiing is programmed into the muscle fibers and nerves of her lithe body and she doesn’t think about the mechanics, rather she is free to enjoy the scenery and the speed.  

After our first warm up run, I hear the answer to my question.

“The downhill leg,” my daughter says.
    “That’s right!  It’s like reaching down to touch your boot.”

“Seriously, mom?”  Try to follow me, I’m awesome.”

“Okay, but stay out of my way so I don’t plow into you.”  

“After the steep part, let’s go fast and then do pizza and French fries to the bottom without turning.”  

“I’m afraid to go fast.”

“I’ll wait for you at the bottom.”

Her words fade away like a passing train.

My daughter taught me to turn more often and to start my turn in pizza form and then switch to French fries. When I followed her, I was faster but still in control so I didn’t get so tired.  I started to relax, breathe and remember the coaching of past instructors.  I was stunned by my small gains.

“The un-teachable is teachable after all; I say to my husband, our little girl has taught me to ski.”  

“Fantastic,” he says.

“I’m awesome,” my daughter says.

Next winter, I expect to be surprised, to look like I’m having fun because I am, and to be the least skilled skier in the family.  I’ll look for golden ponytails, race car drivers and friendly bears.  I’ll whisper ganbatte kudasai to myself and anyone else who needs encouragement. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Barbara Watts is an American expat, mother of 2 and has lived in Japan for 5 years. Barbara booked a trip to Hokkaido through  http://japantraveleronline.com

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