Sunday, January 11, 2015

Japow delivers--like FedEx!!

January 9, 2015, aboard Finnair flight 72

I’m somewhere over the Russian Far North, almost too far north to be called Siberia, on my way home from an enormously entertaining two and a half weeks in Japan, skiing and visiting old friends.  It’s been a whirlwind, but I will try to summarize as best I can.  (For those of you looking for more succinct practical information, it’s at the very bottom of the post.)

The Plan

After living and working in Japan five separate times between 1995 and 2006 for a total of three and a half years, between long stretches of travel, I had only been back to Japan once since then, for a ski trip in 2008/9.  Whenever I left Japan, I always said that it was the last time that I would be back, but somehow it never was.  This time, after telling my friends and fellow skiers in Leysin for the past 4 seasons about the sheer quantity of snow that I was used to in Japan (and which was so rare in the Alps!), my friends Sion, Steve and Finn decided in early September that this was the year to find out whether I was telling the truth or not.  They bought tickets to visit the northern island of Hokkaido for 9 days starting on New Year’s Day, and I decided to head over earlier to visit my friends Miklos and Greg on the main island, Honshu, before joining the other Leysinouds.  The fall went by in the usual blur of (over)work, and the cast evolved slightly, with Finn breaking his ankle a month before the trip, ruling him out, and our former colleague Joe joining the trip as an escape from rainy London. 

On Honshu

By December 20th, LAS had let its teachers out to play for three weeks, and I was on the way to Tokyo and on to Oyama, Tochigi Prefecture (a prefecture about 70 km north of Tokyo, where I spent three stints of work between 1999 and 2003).  There I spent a few days catching up with my friend Miklos (now into his 15th year in Japan). 
Miklos and the wonder-camper

We played Scrabble, reminisced a lot and headed up into the lower mountains ringing the Kanto Plain (the vast, flat conurbation of 35 million people centred on Tokyo that may be the densest collection of closely-packed people in the world.  Miklos has a beautifully equipped camper van that we drove up to a tiny, out-of-the-way village in the hills called Nanmoku to camp and hike for two days. 
The lovely onsen that we had entirely to ourselves

Japanese stone temple monuments, always picturesque
The hiking was challenging, to say the least, with snow and ice lingering on the steep rocky ridges, and we had to turn back on one of the two routes, but it was still great to get into the middle of rural Japan, soak in a beautiful, remote hot spring (in which we were the only bathers) and catch up on the last six years, since our trip together to Niseko over Christmas, 2008.

The snowless lower mountains bordering the Kanto Plain
Fun with late-afternoon shadows

Greg and I on the lift
I headed from there to Nagano prefecture, another of my former hangouts (1995-96 and 2006), where my friend Greg lives in a ski lodge that he bought in Minenohara, a small ski area near Ueda.  On the drive up from Ueda station to Minenohara, the surrounding countryside changed from snowless and drab to a winter wonderland as we climbed from 400 to 1400 metres’ elevation.  We drove the last few kilometres in a blinding blizzard, and awoke the next day to a brilliant sunny but cold morning that we spent flying through the light fluffy snow, carving turns through the woods and down ungroomed pistes, whooping with glee.

Trying to snowboard at Minenohara, with Neko-dake looming behind

On the way up Neko-dake
The next five days were equally enjoyable, a mix of skiing, snowboarding (I rarely snowboard, but I try to get out once a year at least), cooking, playing hockey and indulging in long sessions of speed chess beside the roaring wood stove.

Greg tellies the pow on the way down Neko-dake
It was great fun, with a skin up Neko-dake and a fun powder descent a particular highlight on a rare bluebird day. 

Magical Asahi-dake:  The Deepest, Lightest Powder

The Shirakabaso YHA hostel, our home for three nights at Asahi-dake

On Jan. 1st I said goodbye to Greg and had a planes, trains and automobiles trip up to Hokkaido.  I met Steve, Joe and Sion in the Sapporo airport, picked up our rental van and headed north, through empty, snowy desolation to Asahi-dake Onsen, a hot spring hamlet in the middle of nowhere, at the foot of Hokkaido’s tallest mountain, Asahi-dake.  We stayed in a wonderful hotel/youth hostel that was very Japanese, from the tatami-mat rooms where we slept on futons on the floor, through the hot spring baths to the delicious Japanese breakfasts and dinners that were served up.
Breakfast fare

The meals might have been too genuinely Japanese for Sion and Steve, who found the prospect of fish, fish roe and pickles a bit much to face first thing in the morning.


What made Asahi-dake special, though, was the snow.  There was a prodigious amount of it on the ground, continually topped up by fresh snow falling despite the minus 18 degree temperatures.  The powder was everywhere:  deep on the ground, mantling the trees, clinging to our hair and our clothes as we skied. 

Asahi-dake is a strange place, with a single cable car leading halfway to the summit the only lift.  There are two cat tracks pisted down to the base, but the pistes are not what draws the skiers.  Instead it’s the almost infinite possibilities for off-piste descents, through the trees and down the rare steep pitches near the top.  It’s not a perfect ski area:  the overall pitch is not terribly steep, the cable car only runs every 20 minutes, and there are long runouts to the base that would be tedious on a snowboard and required a fair bit of poling to get through the deep snow, and the wind and cold at the top are pretty extreme, but the quality of the snow more than makes up for it. 

Steve amidst the copious snow

The sheer beauty of the snow-covered trees was probably the scenic highlight of the entire trip.  The wonderful descents that we scouted out on the second day on the skier’s left of the mountain were truly breathtaking.  Even the long runouts through the forest along old tracks were tremendously fun, like a snowy rollercoaster ride.  It would clearly be an amazing place to tour, given better visibility, but it was great even in a continual blizzard.  It was also neat to be at a spot where everyone was on fat powder skis and huge powder snowboards, carrying backcountry gear and skiing serious terrain.

Red-faced after a day of cold and windy fun

At the end of another fun descent with a couple of Scandinavian powderhounds

Kamui and Tokachi-dake:  A Blue Sky Interlude

The back bowl run that was my favourite run of the day
After two days, we headed away from the magical mountain Asahi-dake and back towards civilization.  On the outskirts of the city of Asahikawa we spent a bluebird day exploring Kamui Ski Links, a little resort that I had been told about by an Aussie man while we waited for luggage at the airport.  It was a great tip.  Despite the huge Sunday crowds thronging the parking lot, we quickly found our way into the side-country powder descents that ring the resort. 
Looking for fresh lines in the forest

Unlike many Japanese resorts, Kamui positively encourages people to get into the trees and the back bowls, marking the return traverse tracks with flagging tape and not giving anyone any grief for riding out of bounds.  In fact, on our first trip up the mountain, it was a veteran ski instructor who eyed up our powder skis and gave us directions on how to find the best powder.  A brief skin led to perhaps the nicest descent of the day, off the summit, through magical snow-shrouded birch trees.  We left the resort fully satisfied with our day’s work and with the steep terrain available for skiing.

Brilliant bluebird skies
Trudging off the summit in search of fresh powder

After a night in Asahikawa, we drove the next morning to another onsen (hot spring) high in the mountains, about an hour and a half south of Asahikawa.  I had heard about Tokachi-dake on a ski blog about Hokkaido, where it was described as the Rogers Pass of the island. 

We drove high up to 1270 metres, into a magical landscape of steep ridges and volcanic peaks.  After consulting maps and looking at the slightly dubious weather, we drove down to 1000 metres and what looked like the right trailhead.  

Part of our unscheduled early detour

 We overcame a long false start that cost us an hour before getting onto the right path and skinned up a long ridge to near the summit of Sandanyama.  On the way up we passed a Japanese skier who had stopped for lunch who said that the snow wasn’t very good this year:  not enough of it, and not soft and fluffy enough.  Clearly he had higher standards than we did! 
Skinning our way up the ridge

The weather wasn’t quite as bluebird as the day before, and as we neared the summit, the wind began to howl and the visibility disappeared as cloud blanketed the summit ridge. 

Freezing on the summit ridge

Feeling pretty satisfied, with our peak behind
We quickly took off our skins and started our descent.  We were already becoming Hokkaido powder snobs, as we all noted that the snow below the wind-scoured summit wasn’t quite perfect, although our fat skis rode over top of it just fine.  Partway down we were more sheltered from the wind and the snow was once again vintage champagne, and we hooted and hollered our way down through the delicious snow and the birches and pines. 

The last hundred vertical metres was a bit of a rodeo obstacle course, what Sion would call “James Bond combat skiing”, but soon enough we were back at the car and driving back uphill to the Ryounkaku onsen, where we relaxed our tired legs in possibly the most perfectly-situated outdoor hot pool in all of Japan.  We stretched out in the rust-red steaming water and stared out at the vista of volcanic peaks, all begging to be climbed and skied.  The next time I come to Hokkaido, when I spot a two-day window of clear weather in the forecast, I will be back at Ryounkaku for full days of touring and skiing some of the most beautiful mountains in the world, and soaking in the onsens. 

Relaxing in the rust-red water at Ryounkaku

Rusutsu:  Riders on the Storm
That night we drove to Niseko, a long slog through the dark.  When we got to Niseko, it was a shock to the system.  After four days of being immersed in Japan and in wilderness, we were suddenly in a cross between Chamonix and Kuta Beach.  In the six years since I was last in Niseko, Aussie tourism and property development have absolutely exploded.  There’s barely a Japanese face to be seen in the town, with even the staff in the ski shops and the waitresses in the restaurants being mostly Aussie.  We stayed in the Niseko youth hostel, an old elementary school, and it was definitely the low point of the accommodation for our trip, with very thin futons making for poor sleep, slightly down-at-heel facilities and a room that was either freezing or broiling.  As well, the rooms seemed to aggravate allergies for both Sion and Steve

We woke up the next day to……rain.  Suddenly all that beautiful, glistening crystalline snow was being transformed into slush.  We drove over to Rusutsu, about a 40-minute drive from Niseko, and decided against skiing in the rain (“like a bunch of Belgian tourists”, as my friend Bill Hanson would say).  After wandering open-mouthed through the crazy Disneyesque Las Vegas atmosphere of the resort hotel, we took the day off, reading and lunching in a comically tiny restaurant called Kobito (the Dwarf) before meeting up with my friend Jason, whom I knew from Tochigi days, for pizza that could have been anywhere on earth where tourists gather in hordes.  It was strangely unsettling to encourage that bland sameness that mass tourism seems to impose all over the world, and we decided to get out of town the next day.
The indoor Disneyland-like silliness at the foot of Rusutsu

Overnight the frustrating warmth gave way to much colder air, the winds picked up to gale force and the rain turned into fluffy fat white flakes.  After a frustrating wait to see what lifts were going to open in which resort given the hurricane conditions, we headed back to Rusutsu for one of the best days of the trip.

Despite the crazy conditions, almost all the lifts were operating (except for the gondolas) all the way to the top of two of the three mountains making up the resort.  We spent the day riding the chairlifts (we were thankful that they were enclosed with bubbles, since otherwise we might have died of exposure on the chairs) through the screaming blizzard, scouting out fresh lines and then diving into the trees to enjoy them.  

Riding the cold chair through the blizzard

 Every line seemed to be better than the previous one, as we mastered the art of the gentle diagonal lines that maximized the length of each tree run.  At the top we could barely see, let alone talk to each other, as the storm got more and more intense.  Yet once we dropped off the summit and into the trees, the powder transported there by the wind was some of the finest and deepest of the entire trip.  Joe, Sion and Steve by now had gotten the hang of skiing trees, and we were taking the descents at a pretty decent pace, slaloming among the birches with barely a hiccup.  It was sad to be chased off the mountain early as the resort shut down Isola and East mountains by 3 pm to get skiers safely off the mountain.

Joe buried in powder and further entombed by slough

Rusutsu was a real find, and I can see that between the huge amount of terrain accessed by the lifts, the relaxed attitude of the resort to riding in the trees and the constant snowfall, you could easily spend four or five days there without getting bored in the slightest.  It basically has the Niseko snow and terrain without the crowds, and gets my vote for the best resort skiing of the trip (since Asahi-dake isn’t really a resort by any stretch of the imagination).  Isola Mountain was where we focused our efforts, but East Mountain must have an equal quantity of great off-piste terrain, and we didn’t even look at West Mountain except on our very last run of the day.  I will be back to explore further!

Kiroro:  A brief taste

The drive that night to Kiroro, our final ski spot of the trip, was white-knuckle stuff, with the blizzard building in intensity as Joe drove.  The direct route to Kiroro was closed by the storm as we were on our way, but luckily our trusty sat nav system knew immediately and rerouted us.  The snow on the road piled up deeper and deeper, the icy ruts got bumpier and bumpier and we barely made it past a police roadblock before they closed the road we were on.  It was a relief to make it to Kiroro and check into the most luxurious room of the trip, one that cost less than our grotty youth hostel in Niseko.  The resort gets its money back on food, with no competing restaurants nearby, so we ate a large proportion of our own bodyweight at the expensive all-you-can-eat buffet that night.  I spent some time up on the roof that night, soaking in the onsen and watching the wind and snow continue to pound the hotel. 

The next morning the wind had dropped somewhat but the snow continued to accumulate.  Our car was completely drifted in in the parking lot, with the job completed by a passing snowplow.  We went down and grazed our way through the buffet again and then hit the slopes.  It was strange to see that despite the conditions being far less extreme than in Rusutsu the day before, only half the mountain was open, with the best steep lines at the top tantalizingly out of reach.

Playing in the Kiroro trees

We were kind of bummed about this, but after a few exploratory runs, we started to find better lines.  The snow wasn’t as purely champagne as we had gotten used to (that Hokkaido powder snobbery again!) but it was eminently skiable and we got longer and longer runs through the trees as the day wore on. 
Steve rocking his big Black Crows at Kiroro

The one downer was the attitude of the mountain’s management: the ski patrol chased us off one off-piste run (we were just unlucky that they passed by while we were eyeing up our line) while a lift operator scolded us for skiing off-piste. 

Joe racing through the woods of Kiroro

Kiroro seems to have a more traditionally Japanese attitude to off-piste skiing, but the plethora of Western and Japanese skiers on big fat boards and skis suggests that it’s not too uniformly enforced.  Our last run was wonderful, a completely untracked run into the unknown that had some of the best snow Kiroro had to offer.  It was a bit sad to pole back onto the piste, ski to the bottom and walk off the mountain, knowing that Japow 2015 was at an end.

Of course, being Japan, the snow was still falling and we still had to rescue the car from the snowdrift.  Fifteen minutes of hard work with our avvy shovels and we were good to go. 
How's that for overnight snow?
Our drive to the airport town of Chitose took far longer than expected, with the snowplows having been overwhelmed by the storm and the expressway almost as snowed under as the road to Kiroro the day before.  We eventually found our airport hotel, unloaded our mountain of ski gear, returned the car to the airport and went out for a final feast of gyoza (dumplings), ramen and beer.  I had one last soak in the hotel’s public bath (I certainly got my fix of soaking in the baths this trip; to me it’s one of the best feelings in the world to sit in steaming hot water watching the snow fall), packed my ski bag and went to sleep with snow still falling steadily.
It was still snowing heavily as we left this morning, and our flight was delayed almost an hour as we waited for the plane to be de-iced and the runway to be plowed.  In our eight days on Hokkaido, only one of them was fully clear, and another one had no snow falling although it was clouding up for a big storm.  The bad weather and lack of visibility, though, is a small price to pay for the perfect snow and winter wonderland scenery.  Sion, Steve and Joe are already talking about “the next time”; I think I’ve helped create powder snobs who will rarely be satisfied by the Alps again (especially not this year in the vicinity of Leysin).

So now it’s back to Leysin for a final five months there before hitting the road again.  I hope the dire snow situation improves, and that we can have some days in the Alps that are as memorable as this trip to Japan has been.

Some practical information

Car rental:  There are a bunch of outfits at New Chitose airport, but book early if you’re looking over the busy New Year period.  Car rental is relatively pricey but well worth it for the flexibility it gives you to chase the best snow and the best weather.  We used Toyota Suzuran and were very pleased with our 4WD van’s performance in some pretty challenging conditions.

Accommodation:  We stayed at the YHA Shirakaba-so in Asahi-dake, which gets two thumbs up for price, location, food (great Japanese fare, so bring your adventurous tastebuds!) and hot springs (although when it’s bitterly cold, the outdoor bath is far too cool).  We stayed at the Asahikawa Toyo Hotel in Asahikawa which was cheap and cheerful.  We didn’t stay at Ryounkaku at Tokachi-dake, but rather wished we had; look on for good deals there.  The YHA Fujiyama Karimpani in Niseko was about as cheap as accommodation gets in Niseko but wasn’t very good value for money.  Rusutsu seems not to have much cheap accommodation at all.  I think if we did it again, it would be best to stay in somewhere between Rusutsu and Niseko (such as Kutchan) to give better value for money and more flexibility about where to ski every day.  Niseko didn’t really appeal to me in its current mass-tourism state.  And Kiroro Mountain Hotel is pretty good value for accommodation, although the dinner options are pretty expensive (breakfast is included).

Skiing:  Everywhere we skied was really good (everywhere is great on a powder day!), but Rusutsu, Asahi-dake and Tokachi-dake stand out for me.  We didn’t ski in Niseko despite being there for two nights; I’m sure the terrain and snow are as great as I remember, but I imagine that you would be competing far more vigorously for fresh snow there than elsewhere, given the crowds of powder-hungry Aussies in town.  I feel as though we just scratched the surface, and that there are tons of great spots to ski lifts and to tour scattered all around the island.  I definitely plan to go back again, maybe for longer and after the New Year’s holiday rush, with Terri, who wanted to go this time but was prevented by forces beyond her control.

Costs:  When I first went to Japan in 1995, the yen was at 79 to the US dollar and prices were eye-popping.  Since then most prices in yen have either stayed the same or dropped, while the yen has dropped to 120 to the US dollar and prices in the rest of the world, especially for accommodation and skiing, have gone up significantly.  The net result is that Japan is now, relative to other industrialized countries, somewhat of a bargain.  The most we paid for a lift ticket was 5100 yen (about CHF 42), and at Kamui it was a bargain 3100 yen (about CHF 26).  Accommodation was cheaper than Switzerland; we seemed to average about 7000-8000 yen per person for accommodation, breakfast and dinner.  Even on a ski hill, you can have a pretty filling, tasty lunch for 900-1000 yen (CHF 7-8); try doing that in Switzerland!  Skiing is expensive everywhere, but I think that for lift tickets, food and accommodation, Japan is no longer expensive, and is cheaper than much of North America or Europe.

Look at those big powder-eating grins!!!