There are some things that I normally would never do.
- Topple down a mountain at full speed
- Avoid my name and identity like a plague
- Bathe with someone I just met
And I did all of these things at Waseda University’s ICC’s No Border Skiing and Snowboarding Camp. The list of abnormal experiences continues, but I believe my point is clear: This eye-opening trip was nothing like I’d ever experienced ever before!
For anyone interested in this ICC event or skiing in general, this article is my personal blog as a Japanese university student of my experience at a school trip to a ski resort in Nagano, Japan!
The program took place during Waseda University’s spring break. For three days and two nights, I stayed at a Japanese style ryokan in Sugadaira Kogen, a ski resort in Ueda City of the Nagano Prefecture, with approximately 120 other Waseda students.
The fee was 17,000 yen, which included bus transportation, accommodation (2 nights, 6 meals), accident insurance, instruction fee, and an unlimited lift ticket. While you are free to bring your own ski gear, I chose to rent it from the resort, which cost another 5,000 yen. In my opinion, 23,000 yen for this entire trip was definitely worth it, especially when factoring in the experiences and friendships that I gained from it!
The program was open to any Waseda student, no matter their ski experience! This was extremely comforting, since I had never skied before. The only eligibility requirement was that the applicant must be able to understand either English or Japanese. Check and check!
Intercultural Communication Center
This program is hosted annually by Waseda University’s Intercultural Communication Center (ICC), which was established by the university to enhance the cross-cultural experiences for its diverse student body. This meant that the staff and student assistants at the event were all very helpful and understanding towards international students!
“No Border” Rules
One of my most favorite aspects of the entire trip were its rules (How unexpected, right?). From the time we first stepped onto the bus till our moment of revelation, there were specific “No Border” rules that we needed to follow:
- No asking or telling nationality, department, school year, age
- No using real names, only nicknames
- Can use English and Japanese only.
- Must turn your cell phone off.
- Must proactively share your opinions, ask others their opinions, and have an open mind.
At first glance, this list seemed intimidating and, quite frankly, impossible. How do you possibly live with people for 3 days without revealing your most basic information? Looking back at it now, however, the rules were not as restricting as they were liberating. Let me explain.
What’s the first thing you ask when meeting someone? For me, it was always name and origin. From this information, I could sense my direction of the conversation, and soon a cultural topic would bloom into exciting dialogue.
But asking for names and origins were big No-no’s during the trip, and that threw me for a loop. Instead of basic background information, our conversations started with “What’s your hobby?”, “How’s your day going?”, and other atypical, yet meaningful, introductions.
These rules helped to emphasize the whole goal of the ski event, which is to discover a “deeper way of getting to know people that comes without any preconceptions”, as quoted from the ICC website. What would happen if we were stripped of our nationalities for three days? Keep reading to find out!
Outline of the Trip
The trip lasted 3 days and 2 nights, with a total of 3 ski lessons. Here are some highlights of my experience at a Japanese ski resort.
The Bus Ride
The bus ride was an experience in and of itself! This was where I made my first friends. The “no border” rules had been already put into effect, however, and we soon realized the difficulty of following them. There were many moments that our identities almost left the tips of our tongues and many more moments of awkward silence that followed it.
To ease the process, there were two bus stops at highway service centers in between our 3.5 hour bus trip. These stops were filled with gift shops and food stands that vended local Japanese delicacies!
The Ski Lessons
The first class began an hour after our bus arrived at the resort. No time to waste!
The program offered two options: skiing or snowboarding. Since it seemed better to flail on two legs than on one, I chose the beginner ski class.
Each class had approximately 10 students, and there were options for English speaking instructors. These instructors were all very kind and helpful, and they even went by nicknames themselves to keep the “no border” rules in action!
As for the skiing, I was pleasantly surprised by the improvement of our team within the span of three days. The first day, we slid more on our bottoms than we did on our skis. By the last day, however, some of us were able to take the ski lift to the very top of the mountain. I must say, the excitement and beautiful view made the bruises all worth it!
The Ryokan (Japanese Style Hotel)
The ski event took place at Hotel Yamabiko in Sugadaira Kogen, which is directly in front of the ski slopes. They offered us a very relaxing stay with great onsens, delicious meals, and generous hospitality!
What better way to ease the muscle pain than to dip into a hot, relaxing Onsen?
You would expect bathing with a stranger to be… awkward. On the contrary, it was a very relaxing and comfortable experience! In fact, I made some of my closest friend in the onsen! The notion of being bare—no makeup, no fashion statements, no body image—made it easier to trust one another with deep thoughts and shared companionship.
*Some cultural background: Onsens, or natural hot springs used for bathing, have a deep traditional significance to Japanese culture. In fact, Japanese history books published in the 6th century already noted the existence these onsens as a method of purification. Today, they are commonly separated by gender and are located in public bathhouses and traditional inns.
This is when I realized that the accommodation fee was a REALLY good investment… the food was spectacular! All meals were served in the inn’s cafeteria, which made it very convenient.
For breakfast, there were at least 10 different small servings of various foods, accompanied by white rice, soup, and fruit. Lunch was usually something in a donburi (rice bowl), like curry or shoga-yaki don (gingered pork bowl).
For dinner, we had a feast for emperors! For instance, our first dinner had one main pork stew with side dishes of cabbage salad, fried tofu, pasta salad, stewed spinach, miso soup, and sticky rice. They even served us ice cream as desert! After a long day of skiing, we devoured our delicious meal!
On an interesting side note, each table was in charge of cleaning up after themselves. We would all stack our plates and throw out any waste. With a clean table and full stomachs, we would all say our thanks (Gochisousama-deshita) and leave the dining hall. This was a notable cultural experience as well!
There were 6 of us per room, and each of us had our own futon, or Japanese mattresses. Fortunately, my roommates were super fun and inspiring people! From complaining about our muscle pains to planning our next vacation together, we bonded over the course of the stay like peas in a pod!
The “No Border” Activities
As a reinforcement of the “no border” rules, our day would end with a community activity time with all of the members. While I will not go into too much detail (I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises), the activities consisted of icebreakers and teamwork builders that brought us all closer together.
Sneak peak: there’s sled riding 😉
For one, I can ski now! The learning process was a lot easier with friends to flail and tumble with me, and when I felt like chickening out, they were always there to pull my shaking hand onto the slope!
The biggest eye-opener was the “No name, no nationality” aspect of the program. I realized that, subconsciously, I had always relied on a person’s background and cultural identity to categorize our conversation by themes. While I had no discriminatory intentions, this habit hindered my ability to see the person in front of me for their true individuality.
The ICC’s No Border Skiing and Snowboarding Camp was a special experience that I will forever remember. For any students at the Waseda University who have not taken part in it yet, I strongly recommend you to do so! This is a great opportunity to learn how to ski, all the while making new friendships and gaining exposure to the Japanese culture. And if you are not a Waseda student, there is no need to go with a certain program! The ski resorts are open to the public, so you can take your closest friends and visit the beautiful snowy resorts of Nagano!
For anyone who has questions or wants to hear more about my personal experiences studying in Japan, you can contact me anytime at email@example.com!