Monday, March 7, 2011

To Hokkaido from the other end of the earth


Yesterday, I spent the day in Tokyo on my way to Hokkaido -- literally, 12 hours or so in my former stomping grounds to check out what was new and to pick up the key to a beautiful villa in Hokkaido that a good friend owns. He's one of the savviest hoteliers in the international scene of this industry and we go back a really long way to when we were both very young and idealistic, walking around a hotel construction site and imagining how it would eventually become the most glamorous hotel in the world and the trendsetter for the industry.

HOKKAIDO
BEFORE IT WAS FASHIONABLE

He'd bought a huge piece of land in Hokkaido long before it was even fashionable, and over the next few years had spent a lot of resources doing it up in his ever so tasteful way so that today it looks like a mini Aman resort. I'd borrowed his villa on the spur of the moment for myself and a couple of good friends who had asked me to come along to Hokkaido from Manila. "You know the drill," he said to me, as he handed me the golden keys. "Wish I could go with you but I've got this business trip I can't get out of."

He was headed out of Tokyo himself for somewhere I can't even pronounce properly, to open a new hotel. So, anyway, for a few wonderful days, his villa is mine. As a bonus, he gave me the keys to his new Range Rover, complete with all the impressive gadgetry, parked permanently near the airport so that he can just fly into Hokkaido anytime and effortlessly, seamlessly, head on to his paradise.

BEAUTIFUL IN ALL SEASONS

Hokkaido itself is a really beautiful island that is gorgeous in all seasons. An hour's flight from Tokyo, many people come up in the winter for the snow and skiing -- it's supposed to have the best powder snow in this part of the world -- and in the summer for the cool weather. But autumn and spring are picture-perfect as well with rolling hills and fields of flowers as far as the eye can see. In the winter, though, it's an absolutely white wonderland.

It's also Japan's most enigmatic prefecture -- a land of milk and honey with nature in the raw and wild seasons and weather that can be as emotional as a woman in anger or one in love. I've seen several faces of Hokkaido's weather in a span of minutes -- going from deep dark blue and heavy rains to perfect sunshine without hesitation. This is also the land where the Ainu, Japan's indigenous people, still live; and where bears roam. Visitors who venture out of the capital of Sapporo and other big cities may be shocked to see barbed wires around mountains and signs warning of deadly bears. Yes, this is a wild but beautiful country still.

This morning we took the earliest flight out of Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Hokkaido. I was really still sleepy but I got behind the wheels of the Range Rover, turned on the navigation system, put some opera music on to wake me up, and headed for the villa. I'd been there many times before, but everything looked new and strange with the snow and in the early morning; so the navi was a big help.

A WHITE WINE MOMENT

When we got to the villa, everything was wonderfully prepared -- just like a luxury hotel. There was fresh bread on the table with a pot of English strawberry jam and each bedroom even had a fire going -- my friend had made sure his caretaker had gotten up early enough to light all the fires and warm the house for our arrival. He's really good with details like that.


We all did our own thing for a few hours -- just to chill out. Someone went straight back to bed, someone went for a walk in the knee-deep snow, while another couldn't resist the early breakfast and a quick look on the Internet.

Next, I'd like to write exactly here that someone actually curled up in front of the living room fireplace with a copy of the latest issue of Travelife Magazine -- but unfortunately, no one did that.

Meanwhile, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. There was a pretty state-of-the-art gym (the kind you see in luxury hotels abroad) in one of the rooms which I'd thought about using while I was still in Tokyo the night before -- but "thought" is the operative word here. I bypassed the gym door and walked down a long corridor towards the patio.

I was really headed for the beautiful outdoor jacuzzi with a snow-capped mountain (and, yes, J, it's supposed to be a volcano) in front of me. I put the hot water in along with some bath salts, got my iPod out and set it to Verdi, and rustled up a glass of white wine from a bottle in my friend's cellar.

It was very early in the morning, I know; but it just wasn't the right moment for a cup of tea or a bottle of Coke. If you know what I mean. This was a white wine moment and I didn't care what time of the day it was.

J'S PERFECT TIMING

Then I jumped into the hot tub to savor the moment and the utter bliss. In hindsight, I swear I could've done a countdown. With almost perfect timing, it began to snow and then my Blackberry pinged next to me even before I could press play on my iPod. I didn't even have to check who it was. Of course it was J with a text message from no-man's land.

And just in case you're thinking that I'm getting too complacent about having him text or BBM me everyday, that I don't even have to check my phone anymore to see who it is, I have to confess that I changed the ringer for J's messages so I knew it was him even without looking at my phone. This way, when it's not J's ringer tone, I know it may actually be an important text I have to check quickly. (Swipe)

FROM ONE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE
TO ANOTHER

And there I was in the middle of nowhere in Hokkaido, and J's messages were miraculously bouncing into Hokkaido via Manila from a backward place even more middle of nowhere than mine, that was as far from where I was as I could ever imagine. Talk about poles and lives apart, and talk about two Travelifers connected in extreme circumstances via 21st century technology.

"Yes, I'm on the Internet in my hotel lobby and I've just read your blog," he began. "I'm laughing at your many attempts to swipe at me today." By text, he also told me about his full day of sightseeing involving tall heights and non-pedigreed animals -- some of it sounded ridiculous and really made me laugh. But he ended his message with a strict order: "But don't blog about those."

Then he added: "Have a great time in Hokkaido. Are you wearing your fur?" I replied: "Actually, I'm texting you from an outdoor jacuzzi and it's snowing. Slightly better setting than your XXX hotel lobby." Then I added: "Not that I'm being competitive. But I am Travelife, after all...and you're just XXX."

He replied: "Yeah, okay, I'll let you win this one again..." Hmm -- what else is new, I thought to myself. Then I took a sip of my wine and got ready to type out another reply. It was going to be a pretty enjoyable morning.

DON'T MISS THIS AMAZING EVENT ON FEB 16


Angel Aquino in Bora
for Travelife Magazine last week

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