Published on August 15th, 2017 | by adventuremag
Bucket list tick – Japan
For the last 30 or so years, I have dreamt of traveling to Japan. I’m not sure if the fascination started in my childhood after watching countless Robotech cartoons, laughing hysterically at the Godzilla movies, or the video games riddled with Japanese Anime cartoons. At first, all I wanted to do was travel to Tokyo and geek out at all the technology and the extremely high population density (13.62 million!). Then after seeing the Karate Kid, all of the temples and culture started to interest me. However, it wasn’t until my early twenties that I discovered you could ski there too!
It seems like forever that Japan’s epic and consistent snowfalls were hidden from the rest of the world. Then shortly after the 1998 Olympic Winter Games were held in Nagano, Japan started to appear in magazine shots and the occasional ski movie. It seemed like this was the Valhalla of every powder skier in the world. EVERY SINGLE shot or clip that was presented to us had chest deep (or deeper) snow, perfectly spaced trees, and zero lift lines. This is when Japan was added to my bucket list. With my 40th birthday quickly approaching it was time to tick off my dream trip.
Me being a person with big expectations and a shallow pocket book, I started to do research on how I could get the most out of my limited funds. Every Kiwi and Aussie I spoke to seemed to head straight to Hokkaido, and the town of Niseko. This place gets an unreal amount of good quality, low density of snow every winter (12m annual snowfall). However, myself hailing from Utah which claims to have “the greatest snow on earth,” knows that with large quantities of snow, one must have steep enough terrain to allow you to ski the deep stuff properly. Looking at elevation profiles, slope angles, and snow densities, I quickly learned that Niseko might not be the place for me. To top it off, the word on the street was that Niseko was so full of Australians that you didn’t even need to speak a lick of Japanese to sort yourself out. As I was looking for somewhere more representative of the rest of Japan, that sealed the deal for me to look elsewhere.
I started with annual snowfall amounts, then on to terrain, then on to skiable area. The place that kept ticking all the boxes was Hakuba. Located in the Nagano Prefecture 245km northwest of Tokyo, Hakuba is a small town at 760m in elevation with around 8000 people that sits at the base of the Northern Japanese Alps. With peaks over 3000 meters, this impressive range creates a striking backdrop from anywhere in the valley. With 11 meters of annual snowfall, 11 ski areas, 960 hectares of skiable terrain, 135 lifts, and the most lift accessed vertical skiing in all of Japan, this was the place for me.
I tried not to pay attention to the snow and weather leading up to the trip, as there was nothing I could do about it anyway. However, the week leading up, I saw that Hakuba was on track to have the 2nd worst snow season EVER! It was the middle of January and the resorts were only about 25% open. With a sense of panic, my weather research became frantic. All of a sudden, there it was. A massive storm set to hit 24hours before we arrived. We boarded our plane in Auckland and set off on the 10 hour flight to Tokyo. Even though we left at 1AM, it was hard to sleep with all the excitement. The snow had started and the CM count was already high. After seeing a snow covered Mt. Fuji on the flight in, and increasing snow on the ground during the bus ride in, we arrived just after dinner in Hakuba Village. The sky was lit up from the reflection of street lights in the massive $2 coin sized flakes falling from the sky. 40 centimeters had fallen during the day and another 50 was predicted to fall that night. We booked a shuttle to Cortina for the next day and tried to get some sleep.
We awoke to a crazy amount of snow covering everything in the village. It seemed like everything resembled large white mushrooms. We funnelled into the bus to Cortina like sheep to the slaughter and arrived to close to 1m of fresh, blower pow. Due to the Freeride World Qualifier 4* stop being the same week, it seemed like everyone with a Red Bull Helmet and sponsor sticker covered helmets was there. We boarded the quad at the bottom, and queued up for the rickety old double chairlift that accessed the insane amount of perfectly spaced deciduous forest, all with around a 40 degree pitch. Once at the top, the feeding frenzy ensued. Just like the movies and magazines I had seen over the past 10+ years, I got to experience waist to chest deep blower Japow. Turn after turn the floating feeling came rushing back to me. High on the white stuff, I almost forgot to keep my mouth shut and quickly got corked with a mouthful of snow. A quick chew of the goods and proper placement of a balaclava had me sorted. The snow kept falling like a thick Waikato fog all day long and provided face shot after face shot. With destroyed legs that felt like Jell-O, we made our way back to the village, ate some of the finest sushi from a non-English speaking restaurant and soaked in the local onsen to throw a night cap on the day.
It seemed like the stuff dreams were made of. We awoke each day for the next 5 days to 30-70cm of fresh snow, with just over 5 meters accumulating in the 7 days we were skiing. It only stopped for roughly 20 hours the entire 8 days. As a lot of the outside information about the ski areas speaks mostly about the groomed runs and terrain, or has outdated information about tree skiing at each resort, we only explored 3 different ski areas in the valley: Happo-One, Hakuba Iwatake, and Cortina. Each of the areas were quite different to each other.
Happo-One has the most vertical of any resort in Japan. It is the only resort in the area with above tree line skiing. It has a ridiculous number of chairlifts that access any part of the mountain you wish. Set up in almost 3 sections, there is a crazy amount of mountain to explore. Most of the trees are closed off, but there is still a crazy amount of powder pockets and stashes if you pay attention and know where to look.
Cortina was set up like Porter Heights in Canterbury. It was 1 primary drainage with 3 main chairlifts, 2 that went to the highest points, and one up the bottom, accessing the other lifts. It is a true tree skiing mecca. All of the runs are perfectly pitched for skiing the deep snow. A word of advice, always ski with a partner. Almost all trees lead to terrain traps or steep gullies with tight exits. Don’t get too excited and make bad choices. Once in the trees it’s almost impossible to hike out. Know your exit points before entering. My first day saw me spending almost an entire hour trying to avoid getting stuck in a creek bed because I made a wrong turn. Trees in Japan are considered backcountry and not patrolled, and any rescue is at the skier’s expense.
Hakuba Iwatake was my favourite of the 3 resorts. There were zero lift lines each day we skied there, even after a 50cm dump. They are a bit more lenient with tree skiing on the front side of the mountain, and have an incredible back side that faces west, and holds a plethora of cold smoke in amazing gladed trees. This place is the sleeper resort. Catch it on a powder day, and you will be skiing fresh tracks almost top to bottom from open to close. If you are skiing with a group where some only want to ski the piste, while you want to ski the trees, this is a great place where you can ride lifts together and each ride what you want on the way down.
Japan surprised me with it’s affordability. We didn’t get suckered into the Hakuba Valley pass, but instead got coupons from our accommodation and the info centre, which got us lift tickets and lunch each day for around $45NZD. The almost non-English speaking Hotel Taigakukan we stayed at was 4-star, very traditional Japanese, extremely friendly, and cheaper than the Novotel in Hamilton. The transportation around town was either cheap or free, and airport transfers were around $150NZD. Food and drink from local restaurants was cheaper and better than a normal New Zealand eatery, plus you can get beer from most of the crazy amount of vending machines around! No wonder so many people travel to Japan for their week long ski holidays. We skied a total of 7 days, had accommodation for 8, airport transfers, food, drinks, and flights for 2 of us during peak season and it cost $8300 NZD.
Domo Arigato Japan. This will not be the last time you see me.