The smell of the ocean and the sound of Bossa Nova are ingrained in my genes along with soccer and carnaval. Growing up on the tropical shores of Brazil meant being constantly immersed in body surfing, popsicle licking, and hammock swinging activities from a very young age, and in what felt like living in an eternal summer, the closest I’d gotten to snow was when holding a glass of raspadinha (Brazilian slushy). Until January 2017, that is, when I landed up on the Japanese Island of Sapporo.
I realised I’d entered the world of Japan’s harsh winter upon seeing the multitude of chimneys and two-story wooden cottages, whose snowy roofs seemed to have been skilfully piped with layers of soft meringue by a Michelin chef. My worries were momentarily forgotten as I scanned the landscape for signs of restaurants. My affinity with Japanese cuisine was as intimate as with feijoada (Brazilian bean stew) or churrasco (Brazilian meat barbeque), my native country's two national dishes. Inevitability, I would linger in the enticing Hokkaido food scene if the below freezing air was inhospitable to my bronze skin.
Few people know that South America’s largest city is home to the biggest Japanese population living outside of Japan. Sao Paulo is not only my birth town, but also the address to approximately 2 million Nikkei (Brazilian citizens of Japanese ancestry, or Japanese immigrants). During the early 1900s, the Asian settlers were attracted by job opportunities in the coffee plantation industry, after the African slave traffic was abolished. Not surprisingly, the yakitory, sukiyaki and sushi restaurants in the large financial centre are as authentic as it gets.
The sound of the alarm clock at 7:30 in the morning the next day pulled me from a deep comatose. I got hit by the reality of the unfamiliar vacation, where lazy breakfasts were not on the cards.
Covered with layer upon layer of clothes, I walked awkwardly to the bottom of the mountain to meet my ski instructor. Kindly ignoring my stiff-legged ability to move, the friendly young Australian guided me countless times up and down the small inclination - an area specially designed for other first-time skiers like me. The strength of the workout made the sweat dripping down my forehead freeze as soon as it touched the outside air, and I suddenly pined for a glass of Aperol Spritz while watching the sun setting over Bali's ultramarine waters. Longing for familiar shades of turquoise, my gaze took time to adjust to the grey hues of Grand Hirafu’s uncanny heights, as a group of confident infants zig-zagged effortlessly past me.
At lunch time, the ample gondola glided me to the top of Niseko’s main mountain, disembarking near an impromptu cafeteria. The comforting smell of homemade beef broth, seaweed and beer filled the lively atmosphere, while hundreds of skiers slurped their hearty noodle bowls almost in a synchronised movement. ‘Girl from Ipanema’ played softly in the background, bringing a grin to my face. I finally felt at home.
The soft afternoon light bled into evening, begging for a siesta. I made the easy way down the mountain, reaching the warmth of my cozy, serviced apartment. After a long soak in the steamy tub, I slipped into fleece pyjamas, buried my face on a downy pillow, and dreamt about sun-tans and caipirinhas.