Chop Sticks and Winter Sticks – Snowboarding in The Japanese Alps
By Duncan McCallum. Pictures by Neil Baxter and Duncan McCallum
I reached into the storage pocket on my rucksack’s hip belt, pulled out the small white explosive handle and pushed it into the standby position on my the Avalanche safety ABS Rucsac, “god, I hope I never have to use this” I thought to myself. We all stood at the top of the couloir, staring at the 40 degree slope, none of us quite wanting to be the “first in”. However, staying where we were was not an option, the air was starting to tingle and the clouds were taking on a slightly odd orange/brown tinge, the distant lightning flashes were moving closer.
Sixty minutes earlier we had stepped through the rope barrier without any trouble from the ski patrol and had headed up the ridge towards Mount Tengu a 1.30 hour hike above Hakuba Goryu the ski resort, in the Japanese Alps. Out of the safety of the ski hill we snow-shoed along the mountain ridge just about 2200m above sea level, the wind was blowing hot pockets of air through the morning chill.
30m from the summit ridge, Matt stopped in his snowshoe tracks, “err guys, I’ve just seen a lightning flash”. We were exposed, very exposed. Six snowboarders all in a group carrying our snowboards vertically attached to our backs. Six ripe sweaty lightning conductors. The air suddenly felt electric. The soft billowing clouds now contained danger. The decision was easy, get off the ridge fast and into safety. We all quickly dropped 50m down off the ridge into a stand of tall solid Japanese birch trees, “ spread out a bit more” I said “its much better we don’t all stand in one big clump”. Feeling a bit less little exposed we all rapidly started to make the transition from climbing to sliding down hill. Now however, the issue was that we were at the top of a wide eastern facing gully. 3 days before this gully was alive with avalanches and laden with large pockets of unstable wind blown snow (wind slab). Our objective, a long beautiful tree lined north facing ridge offered us our best safest and least avalanche prone descent, but that was now out of the question, the risk off a lightning strike felt greater than being caught in an avalanche.
Calmly and swiftly we all strapped on our boards, packed away our walking poles and snow shoes and looked down the gully, 800 meters of elevation, the 25 to 40 degree gully was nearly 2km long. Just 12 months ago three young Kiwi skiers jumped into this couloir. it slid and the two were killed, they carried no avalanche transceivers, and no self rescue equipment.
Craig, a Kiwi and Hakuba long term resident and joint owner of the Morinio skiers lodge with North Berwick born Matt Dunn, lead off, boarding smoothly into the gully, a hundred meters down he pulled out of the gully bed on to an “island of safety” a small ridge out of the main slide path route and signalled to me to follow. I dropped in listening and feeling the snow under my powder board, the wind-slab was evident but it seemed well bonded to the layers below. This was difficult mountain boarding, wind scoured hard packed snow with pockets of slab and powder in places, steep too. The north faces of the gully contained powder. Turning quickly sent plumes of powder high over my head obscuring my vision momentarily. Great fun, but I backed off a bit as this was now not the place to rip up the powder, much safer to see and feel the hill today, enjoy it, but get off without incident. For the next hour we leapfrogged our way down the gully, stopping in safe spots, then moving quickly through the terrain traps (spots in the gully with no escape from potential avalanche burial). We crossed massive amounts of avalanche debris from the warming the week before; the full 5km journey finishes conveniently at the one and only bar in the region with Belgian beer. In a good year this is the best of Japanese back-country skiing, steep complex and fun. This year despite the worst snow in 10 years, we were having a blast.
The Hakuba valley lies 60km to the north west of Nagano city home of the 1998 winter Olympics, the residue of these games still lie dotted around the mountains, large white elephant ski jumps, empty stadiums and fading signs, the local officials seem proud of the legacy, ignoring the cost and the bills still to be paid, sighting them as great adverts for Japanese skiing. They just could not get there heads around the fact that to us powder hunters they meant nothing, a tedious distraction from the real deal, they also did not understand that to Europeans, the games did not register as a marketing signal that snow in Japan is exceptional.
Whilst most European resorts struggle for a 7m fall average per annum, the Hakuba valley boats a 12m average, huge deep and in normal years, stable. The storms blast in from the China Sea, dumping up to a meter at a time, the wet snow sticks well and the temperatures are generally cold but not extreme, creating great off-piste conditions.
Neil and I were guests of Classic Resorts of Japan, an alliance of 4 resorts all in the central island. To those in the know, Japanese powder is legendary, but as we were planning the trip it was a surprise how many people do not associate Japan with great skiing. They have over 800 resort hills. In the nineties just pre Olympics skiing was in fashion here. They build hundreds of lifts, new villages and developed ski hotels and towns everywhere. However as the economics of boom and bust took hold, post Olympics, the towns went into decline. There have been few new developments in the last 10 years, and some of the resorts are struggling to stay alive.
Part of the issue is the nature of the local Japanese custom. Holidays in Japan are short, so its mostly only weekend trade and there is almost no foreign tourist services. Infrastructure is limited for long term stays. Almost nothing is available in English and there are very few English speakers. However if it were easy the magnificent powder would be tracked out in a day, like the high-pressure resorts of Verbier and Chamonix.
This is the reason to come to Japan. The tree skiing, and off-piste back-country skiing is as good as anywhere in the world. This combined with huge snow falls make this a special destination, however If you not a dedicated powder hound and prefer the groomers, stay in the Alps. The pistes, although smooth can be low angled and by Alpine standards, small. These towns and hills are not family destinations. There are to many difficulties with food, language travel and infrastructure for a relaxing family ski holiday from the UK. And many of the lifts do not have safety guards, so if you have small kids under 10 they can easily fall off them.
Hakuba reminded us of a run down Breckenridge in Colorado, poor building quality and spread out and lacking a real centre, whilst Myoko Kogan looks like its slowly falling apart, unloved and underused, but this is part of its charm and its blessing. However the jewel in the crown is the ancient sulphur bath town of Nozawa Onsen (onsen = hot tub), Nozawa has narrow streets, family cafes, and the best garage pub in the world.
Even for the dedicated, it’s not all-plain skiing. Many resorts have rules that are restrictive and incomprehensible. A lot of the best terrain is out of bounds and the ski patrollers will take your pass if you are caught ducking ropes and barriers. The stories of the Japanese not skiing in the trees are true, however this is not an issue of the trees being sacred. They don’t, because its not allowed.
This tension is mounting as vast numbers of Australians visit Japan each year, flaunt the rules and taunt the ski patrollers, however luckily, most antipodeans head for Niseko on Hokkaido island. The off-piste problem is getting worst and soon the resorts will have to get to grips with the needs of the Western visitor or ban them completely.
One way to avoid running the gauntlet in the resorts is to hike into the back country where once out of the resort, you are on your own. The mountains are beautiful, complex and provide fantastic back country skiing in the winter and good spring ski touring from April to the end of May. It is recommended for the first couple of days at least to use a local mountain guide. There are plenty of small local Japanese guiding operations but almost none of the companies have English speaking guides or web sites. An additional complication is that most Japanese mountain guides are not internationally qualified have limited avalanche and rescue training. One notable exception to this is The Hakuba Based Evergreen Guides company run by UIAGMA certified Canadian Dave Enright. They offer the best guiding service in Japan in my opinion, and employ a number of International Mountain guides and aspirants.
Unlike the rest of Japan, the ski towns are pretty limited, and don’t expect any off piste action in the form of big clubs or pubs, but the cultural experience especially in Nozawa Onsen is fascinating and very welcoming. The Onsen hot bath is a real treat, hot volcanic springs bubble to the surface and provide beautiful natural hot baths, where its traditional to bath in the nude So I suppose the tester questions is would I go back? The answer is defiantly YES. The cultural adventure is fabulous, the mountains fun and the snow maybe the deepest in the world.
Japan Top tips – Nagano prefecture (District)
Nagano is the hub for the Classic Resorts of Hakuba, Myoko Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Kogen with busses and trains into the resorts at regular intervals from the city. For contacts and more info www.snowlove.net/japan
Travel - Tokyo to Hakuba/Nozawa Onsen.
London to Tokyo Flights with various airlines
JR Train from Narita Airport to Tokyo Central Station 1 hr
Bullet train to Nagano 2 hrs Total about 8,000 Yen,
Bus Transfer for Nagano Station East Side to Hakuba Central 1.15mins 1500 yen.
The train from Tokyo to Nagano is the calmest way to travel, pre booking ski delivery to you lodge or hotel from Tokyo Airport is recommended and costs £10, it saves you trawling your kit though the underground. Public transport is great, clean and unthreatening.
The simplest way to travel though, is by hiring a private Chofu Taxi direct from the airport to the resort, but 4-5 hours in a mini bus is not my idea of fun but it’s a good simple and cheap option http://www.chuotaxi.co.jp/index.php?id=8
Accommodation in Hakuba – Remember when you are booking a room you have two styles, Western with a bed, or Japanese, with a futon and low seats.
4 Star Tokyu Hotel Twin Rooms aprox 30,000 - 50,000 per night, 5 days or longer discounts available. http://www.tokyuhotelsjapan.com/en/TR/TR_HAKUB/index.html (western style)
Morino Lodge – The best lodge in Hakuba, about 7,000 per night - http://www.morinolodge.com/ (Western and Japanese)
Hakuba HiFumi Hotel, a lovely Japanese Lodge Hotel http://www.hakubahifumi.jp/eigo/ 17,000 per room for two
Kiriya Ryokan – a very nice and established Japanese style Hotel www.kiriya.jp
Akakura Kanko Resort and Spa http://www.akr-ski.com/english/
Tokyo – Park Hotel www.parkhoteltokyo.com a great place to see Tokyo from.
For general tourism info http://www.jnto.go.jp/ Japanese National Tourism Organisation
Money and costs and other stuff
When the yen is strong i.e. under 180 yen to the pound, Japan is frankly unaffordable, so watch the exchange rate
Travel in Japan is quick easy and on time, but there are no or almost no sign in English once you leave the Tokyo Area, but people are very helpful so with a little patience travel is relatively easy.
ATM machines are in short supply, so travel to the resorts with enough cash in Yen to last a few days, also almost none of the resuratnts and cafes have card facilities.
Travel and fixing service – Hakuba Snow Connections – Contact Steve – firstname.lastname@example.org
Mountain Guiding – Evergreen Outdoor Center – Dave Enright – email@example.com
Bring your own skis as most of the hire shops only hire on piste equipment, and shoe sizes are limited to the smaller sizes. If you have space alos bring energy and granola bars for the hill as rice parcels and Japanese chocolate don,t do it.