For five years now, an old friend from my Dartmouth College days named Cliff Bernstein has been running a special event for Dartmouth alumni based in the East Asia region. Cliff himself has been living in Japan for most of the past three decades since he graduated from Dartmouth in 1989, and he is completely fluent in Japanese. He runs an inn called Freedom Inn Niseko in the booming ski resort area of Niseko in Hokkaido, and he has been inviting Dartmouth alumni in the region to join him and others for a weekend winter gathering known as Niseko Green.
I’ve known about this event for years, but always demurred, not being much of a ski enthusiast these days. This time, however, Cliff made me an offer I could not refuse. He invited me to attend the event as the keynote speaker and offered to pay for my flight. Thus, I took him up on the offer and headed from Shanghai to Niseko for a weekend of Dartmouth alumni fun.
Last time I was in Hokkaido was over 25 years ago, when I lived in Sapporo for a stint in the summer of 1993. It was nice to return to this beautiful island even for a short time. I recall the vivid natural beauty of Japan’s northernmost island, though of course it looks very different in winter. The volcanic mountains and ranges are covered in many layers of snow, as are the valleys and fields. Quite a spectacular site. And the onsen (spring baths) are even nicer in winter-time!
Cliff picked me and another alum coming from Shanghai up at the airport and drove us to Niseko, which is around a two-hour drive from the Sapporo airport. It’s a lovely drive that winds through valleys and mountain passes, with stunning views of volcanic Mount Yotei along the way. There’s also a spectacular lake in the middle of the trip surrounded by snowy mountains.
I stayed in a cozy log cabin that Cliff is renting along with his business partner, another Dartmouth alum named Roy who co-organized the event. Other attendees stayed in a couple of hotels in the main tourist village of Hirafu. The town is booming now with ski tourists from Australia, Europe, and the USA as well as from various Asian countries, and new hotels are going up like “mushrooms in spring rain” to use a Chinese saying.
There were around 30 attendees for this year’s Niseko Green event, coming to Hokkaido from Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, and Seoul, as well as from Beijing and Shanghai. Some were avid skiers, while others like me were there mainly for the social events. A group of Korean alums coming in from Seoul had the fantastic idea to tour a nearby whiskey distillery (I didn’t join, as I needed to save my energy for my speech that night). It was great getting to know the other alums at the event, most of whom I hadn’t met before, and also a wonderful opportunity to expand my own network of Dartmouth alumni in this world region. Most of our alumni are in the business world, although there are a small handful of other academic types as well.
Cliff and Roy organized two nights of dinners and drinks for our group. On the second night, during a dinner held at the posh Ki Niseko Inn, I gave my keynote speech based on research I’m currently doing on the spread of jazz into the Asia-Pacific region in the 1920s and 1930s. I was introduced by Euysung Kim, another Dartmouth ’91. He gave me a good-natured ribbing about my chosen research topic of Asian nightlife (it’s okay, I’m used to that by now!) and talked about our freshman trip to the White Mountains of New Hampshire in the fall of 1987 and what a big difference that made for him as he adjusted to life in Hanover. Cliff was our trip leader, which is how we first got to know him 32 years ago.
Despite taking place late into the evening amidst a several-course meal of Japanese delights, my talk was well-received by the attendees. Afterwards I fielded many good questions from other alums about my chosen topic of jazz in Asia. Prior to my keynote speech, the oldest member of the group, a Dartmouth ’83 from Manila, whose son was admitted to Dartmouth this year, gave a fun speech. His son was there along with a young rugby player from Manila who also will attend Dartmouth in the Class of 2023. For their sake I added a small talk I’ve been giving lately on the value of a liberal arts education, which takes you in directions you never imagined. I hope they appreciated it, and I wish them the best of luck on their Dartmouth adventure!
During the daytime, I chilled in cafes in the ski villages of Hanazono and Hirafu, got some work done on my laptop, and watched the skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes. I haven’t skied much at all since I had a terrible skiing accident in 1986 on the slopes of Lebanon New Hampshire and lost my spleen. It isn’t so much that I am afraid of further injuries, though I don’t think I have any more organs to spare, but more that I haven’t had the ability to put in the effort and the resources to continue to develop and nurture a skiing habit over the decades. Thus, I was content to watch the others head out to the slopes for some fun times. On the last day I was there, a big snowfall hit the area and covered the slopes and valleys with nice powdery snow. I’m sure that they are all having a grand time now as I write this entry from the airplane back to Shanghai.
In addition to my keynote and also catching up with old friends Cliff and Euysung and others, the big highlight of the weekend for me was hanging out with a smaller subset of the group after our last dinner. At first, we searched the town for a bar to occupy, but they were all closed down by the time our dinner ended around midnight. Instead, we braved the icy streets of the ski village, picked up some beers and liquor at a convenience store, and spent another two hours sitting around a large table in the lobby of the hotel chatting deep into the night. At one point I managed to get the entire group of around fifteen alums singing a couple of Dartmouth ditties, and we had a few other fine singers who continued to trot out some of our golden oldies. It really felt like good ol’ times in mid-winter Hanover NH.
I hope we can continue to develop our Dartmouth alumni network in Asia as this really is a special community with a deep collective knowledge of this dynamic world region, and it’s high time we mobilized on a larger scale. Cliff and Roy’s Niseko Green event is a great start, and for those who want a weekend getaway, fresh mountain air, good food, deep piles of snow, volcanic mountain views, some fine skiing, and good old Dartmouth cheer, this is not an event to be missed!