‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’ for these two Dutch powder junkies Caroline and Julie. Each winter these two ski journalists follow a strict powder diet. This winter their adventure started in the birch forests of Japan. With three weeks of continuous snowfall they replenished their vitamin P deficiency and renamed January to Japanuary! They returned from their trip feeling completely zen after many visits to the onsen, the Japanese way of après-ski: bathing in natural volcanic hot springs.
The Japanese ski season runs from mid-December to the end of March, with the most snow falling in January. Depending on the length of your stay, you can choose to visit Hokkaido, the North Island and Honshu, the biggest island. This time we spent three weeks on Honshu and skied Hakuba, where many of the events of the ’98 Winter Olympics were held.
Ski with a guide!
Of course Hakuba has a lot more to offer than just great piste skiing. It is made up of 9 different ski resorts and we discover most of them with the guides from Evergreen Outdoor
Dave, the owner of Evergreen is our very experienced guide. Originally he is from Canada and has been living in Japan more than 20 years. He used to work as ski patroller at Hakuba Cortina (best tree skiing in Hakuba!), gives AST courses and advices Japanese ski resorts how to deal with the growing numbers of backcountry skiers. Dave is currently working on a very cool new project: opening a new controlled backcountry area in Tsugaike (another resort in Hakuba). For now it is still illegal to ski off-piste at Tsugaike and your pass will be pulled by patrol, but Dave hopes to open the area later this season. He was kind enough to give us a sneak preview though and for two days and we skied the untouched powder in this beech and birch forest, filled with pillows, drops and rollers.
If you are under the impression that you can only ski mellow lines in Japan, you are wrong! Around Hakuba you can find steep spine lines, just like in Alaska. Therefore we were not surprised when we ran into Travis Rice in the backcountry of Tsugaike. This is his second year in Hakuba, filming for his new movie, which will air this autumn.
Until a few years ago, skiing off-piste was still prohibited in some ski areas. Nowadays, each ski area has its own specific measures to try to regulate backcountry skiing. These include signing in and out with ski patrol by means of a special form, having a so-called ‘powder pass’ with you and wearing a coloured bib. Whether these measures actually help improve safety remains to be seen.
Japan is not that expensive
Sure you have to get there first, but once you are there you don’t have to spend that much. Of course the current exchange rate helps: 1000 Yen = 7,5 euro. To give you an idea of the prices: a day pass will cost you between 20-35 euro and a bowl of hot steamy udon noodles with shrimp tempura on the slopes will only cost you around 6 euro. If you prefer to bring your own lunch you can buy cheap (and very good) snacks at the 7 Eleven. Our favourite was a hot o’nigiri: a rice triangle wrapped in seaweed filled with for example salmon, which costs less than 1 euro. You can decide yourself how much you want to spend on accommodation. We highly recommend spending a night in a ‘Ryokan’, a traditional Japanese inn where you sleep on futons and can enjoy delicious Japanese cuisine consisting of miso soup, rice and raw fish. The mattress might be a bit harder than what you are used too and most of the times there no showers. However they’ll have an onsen where you can soak your tired muscles and wash up. For an overview of all the places we stayed, check the ‘details’ at the bottom of this blog.
Japan is not only the ultimate Ski-topia (fresh powder every day!), it is also a cultural experience. For us Westerners, Japan is a country of idiosyncrasies such as heated toilet seats, vending machines selling beer accessible to anyone and located in every imaginable location are special toilet slippers. The Japanese hospitality is truly unique and transcends everything we think is service. It is for example quite normal for a Japanese person to practice his/her bow each morning to make sure it is exactly in a thirty-degree angle.
You will hardly find any ATM’s in Japan. Hakuba only has two. So make sure you carry lots of cash. But don’t worry; Japan is one of the safest countries in the world.
Lost in translation
Wherever we go we spot spelling mistakes, such as ‘calefur snow falling flom loof’, ‘fast aid kit’ and ‘experts onry’, which make us giggle every time.
I’m on a powder diet!
Having worked up a ravenous appetite after a morning full of powder, we sit down in the ‘resrorant’ and order a bowl of steaming udon noodles, which we loudly slurp in keeping with Japanese custom. The healthy and delicious Japanese food has had a very positive influence on our trip and, in no time, our diet consists of miso, rice, noodles and other local delicacies. To drink we prefer a (hot) sake, a nice cold Asahi beer or green tea.
Take the train! Tickets are affordable and the trains are always on time and extremely fast (the Shinkansen goes 300km per hour!). Buying the actual ticket can be a challenge as very few people speak English, but it is the most comfortable way to travel. We made a tiny mistake by taking a Chuo Taxi http://www.chuotaxi.co.jp/publics/index/10/ from Narita airport to Myoko (a 6-hour drive) for 150 euro per person. Looking back, we should have taken the train or the Nagano Snowshuttle http://www.naganosnowshuttle.com that runs 1-2 twice a day between Narita, Hakuba, Myoko and other ski resorts.
Life in Japan is simple: eat, ski powder, onsen, ramen, sleep and repeat! After a long day on the mountain there is no better way to relax than laying in an onsen, a natural hot spring filled with thermal water. It is a Japanese custom to thoroughly wash yourself before entering the onsen. The Japanese also believe that onsens have healing powers because of the minerals they contain. Either way it is both physically and mentally cleansing and relaxing.
In the small village of Nozawa Onsen every 15th of January a spectacular festival, the Dosojin Matsuri, is held, starring the village’s 25- and 42-year-old men. The Japanese Shinto religion regards these ages as yakudoshi, meaning unlucky. During this festival, the men display their courage by defending a gigantic wooden shrine from the other villagers who try to set it on fire. By doing this, they hope to be able to avoid a year of misfortune. It is a fierce battle, with the ‘unlucky’ men fending off blows from blazing torches to prevent the fire from setting the structure alight. This spectacle goes on until the attackers run out of ammunition. The yakudoshi men have displayed sufficient strength and courage and, after the entire structure is set on fire, peace slowly returns to this charming village. As the festival becomes more and more popular each year, it is impossible to find last minute accommodation in Nozawa around January 15th. This is the only thing you really need to take care of in advance.
We stayed in Tokyo Ueno, just outside the busy city centre and we really enjoyed this area. There were many cozy restaurants and izakaya’s (Japanese bars) and we also visited the Tokyo National Museum. While looking at Japanese art we also learned a lot about the rich history of this country. Japan has been virtually free of foreign influences for centuries. In this homogeneous society, with 99% of the country’s 127 million inhabitants being Japanese, preserving the traditional culture continues to play a major role today. Of course we had to visit the hectic heart of Tokyo, Shibuya. On a weekday over 2,4 million passengers use this metro station. We ended our trip on a high note in yet another karaoke room.
Find more information on skiing in Japan on Caroline and Julie's Facebook page
Photography: Caroline van 't Hoff
Evergreen Outdoor Tours: Ski with a guide in a group of 2-6 people. Everyday Evergreen decides where to ski, depending on the snow conditions. Lunch and lift passes are not included in the price. You can choose between:
-Backcountry tour (ski touring/ split boarding): €75 pp (includes a guide and transportation)
-Off piste tour (lift accessed powder): €80 pp or €105 if you have to rent safety gear (includes a guide and transportation).
Tsugaike day pass: €23/ season pass: €390
Cortina day pass: €26 euro / season pass: €285
Happo day pass: €35 euro / season pass: €477
The options of where to stay in Hakuba are endless, no matter what your budget is. Our recommendations are:
Aria Hotel: a simple but comfortable hotel right around the corner from the Evergreen office; €50 euro for a twin room including breakfast.
Hotel Mominoki: a luxurious hotel, with one of the best onsens in town (you don’t have to be a hotel guest to visit the onsen). Located across from the Evergreen office; €90 euro for a double room, including breakfast.
Find more accommodation around Hakuba see Ski Japan Holidays