The Land of the Rising Sun could be the world’s best-kept powder secret. With billowy snow and birch-lined slopes (watch out for the monkeys!), Japan’s cultural flair make this a must-see ski destination
BY: Julie Nieuwenhuys PHOTOGRAPHY: Caroline Van ‘T Hoff
Big, white, fluffy snowflakes dance through the pitch-black sky and huge light towers illuminate the deserted runs of Niseko, Japan. It is 8 p.m. and while most skiers are enjoying yet another Asahi beer, I’m on a totally different kind of high. The eerie, elongated shadows of the birch trees appear to bring the forest to life. The runs and the surrounding woods are illuminated by 1,287 lights, making the visibility even better than in daylight. In this magical, three-dimensional dream world I fly through the feather-light powder. With an average of six days of snowfall a week, fifteen metres in a season lasting just 3.5 months, and 12-hour ski days, the chances of powder in Japan are the largest by far; it’s not roulette, it’s a guaranteed jackpot! Caroline and I, two Dutch powder junkies, couldn’t resist these numbers and cured our vitamin P deficiency by following a rigorous powder diet … this time in Japan!
For us Westerners, Japan is a country of idiosyncrasies such as heated toilet seats, adults with “Hello Kitty” clothing and vending machines selling beer accessible to anyone and located in every imaginable location. 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.
Japan has been virtually free of foreign influences for centuries. In this homogeneous society, with 99 percent of the country’s 127 million inhabitants being Japanese, preserving the traditional culture continues to play a major role today. A spectacular festival, the Dosojin Matsuri, is held in the village of Nozawa Onsen on Jan. 15, 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.
Wintry Twisted-Branch Jungle
Clouds cover the valley like a woolly blanket, with imposing, steep mountains rising up above it. We are in Hakuba, a valley with 10 different ski areas. This is where the downhill and the super-G were held during the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics. Although Japan has a reputation of being relatively flat, the high mountains of Hakuba look just like Alaska. That is one of the reasons why Jeremy Jones filmed part of his movie Further here. Dave, the lead guide and owner of the Evergreen Outdoor Center, introduces Hakuba to us: “Hakuba does get a bit less snow than Niseko, but it is all relative. I would give Hakuba an eight for snow and Niseko a 10. For terrain I would rate Niseko a four and Hakuba a 9 and-a-half. It is lift-accessed heli-skiing, but I guess I am biased having lived here for years.” We put on our skins and ski tour the mighty mountains of Happo-One, one of Hakuba’s ski resorts. Huge peaks and steep couloirs surround us. After a few hours it is finally time to drop into a large bowl, where 1,000 vertical metres of heavenly powder await us. The powder is so dry that our spray remains visible like a cloud of smoke in the air. Euphorically, we ski towards Dave and, as always, we are hungry for more. In the afternoon, we head into the famous Japanese birch forests, which look like a wintry jungle with their twisting branches covered in snow. We soar down in perfect conditions, which only seem to exist in the ski movies. The snow is so light that it is virtually impossible to breathe. Whooping, we arrive at the road, where the Evergreen driver awaits us. To top it all, he points out wild monkeys as they dangle from trees along the way! Side note: The best place to spot snow monkeys is the Jigokudani valley, just outside Nagano. The valley is home to around 160 Japanese macaques, which descend from the mountains every day to soak in the onsens (natural hot springs). The monkeys are almost human-like as they lazily enjoy their wonderful hot bath before returning to the forest in the evening.
“Nana Korobi Ya Oki”
The land of the rising sun has been plagued by disaster on numerous occasions: a catastrophic tsunami, earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions and two atomic bombs. The typical Japanese saying “Nana korobi ya oki” (literally: fall down seven times, get up eight) expresses the great resilience of the Japanese people. This ability to bounce back is related to a culture that values personal responsibility and hard work, as well as modesty and a sense of solidarity with a community. Japan is a fascinating country with a rich (ski) history. The Austrians introduced skiing in Japan some 100 years ago. Building on the successful 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, the popularity of the sport peaked in the mid-1980s, when there were as many as 700 ski areas. An economic recession in the early 1990s