Can you say ‘Japow’? A late January trip to Japan reveals a perfect powder jungle
Choking on fresh powder as I flew through perfectly gladed birch trees on my snowboard, stopping every five to six turns to let the snow settle so I could see where I was going, it occurred to me that there would be no snow monkeys in my immediate future.
I had come to Japan looking for thigh-deep powder and snow monkeys and the snow monkeys quickly lost out to the waist deep powder that just kept getting deeper. As I stopped to photograph my friends bursting through the snow it became apparent that I was in fact one of eight Vail snow monkeys giggling in a perfect powder jungle.
This was the trip of a lifetime for me. I had been dreaming of it since an old boyfriend in New Zealand told me Japanese snowboarding tales of riding incredibly deep snow in perfectly spaced trees. Having checked Alaska off the bucket list last year, it was time to redeem my Japanese snowboard dream points. I casually searched for flights to Tokyo on a random evening in November. I bought two tickets for my boyfriend and I and it wasn’t long before another six of my friends jumped on the Japanese dream tour with me and we started planning our trip.
After some research, we decided to head to Hakuba, otherwise known as the Japanese Alps. It is about five hours southwest of Tokyo, host to the 1998 Winter Olympics and consists of 11 ski resorts of various sizes. Hakuba boasted steep terrain with easily accessible backcountry. We decided to stay at the Hakuba Powder Lodging, in a cottage that slept six comfortably, and up to eight, not as comfortably. For 30,000 yen per night (U.S. $389), it was right within our budget. The owners of the Lodge, Nick Kowal, a Canadian expatriot, and his Japanese wife, Hiro, were incredibly hospitable. They offered a wealth of knowledge about the area, including the best places to eat, soak and, of course, ride and ski.
Arriving in Tokyo at 6:30 a.m., our group split up as we arranged different ways to get to our final destination. Four of the group members opted for a private shuttle that took four-and-half hours. Two others took a highway bus, which took around five hours. My boyfriend Mike and I opted for the infamous Shinkansen, or Bullet train, which supposedly could get us to Nagano in an hour and a half, with another hour bus ride to Hakuba.
Well, somewhere in the information exchange at the airport, “bullet train” got lost in translation and we ended up on the “fast train,” which ended up being five different trains that took a total of eight hours and a strain on our relationship. It was definitely an adventure, but after arriving at the lodge four hours after our friends and seeing them smiling in shock after their first half day of riding deep, untracked powder, I was a little bitter. It passed as quickly as it came the next morning as I snacked on a pork-steamed bun from the local convenience store and took in my surroundings.
Our cottage was about five minutes from Happo One, one of the largest resorts in the valley. It was a fairly typical ski town but in Japan it meant more Japanese restaurants, plenty of Onsen (traditional Japanese hot springs) and plenty of tiny front-wheel drive cars cruising snow-packed roads between four-foot walls of snow. Free shuttle buses departed regularly in the mornings for the different ski resorts and lift tickets ranged from $45 to $72.
For our group of eight, included seven snowboarders and one skier, Hakuba offered endless terrain possibilities both in and out-of-bounds, not to mention that the valley was completely drowned in powder, having gotten the most snow it had received in 30 years.
In eight days of riding, we rode three of the 11 resorts in the valley, including Goyru, Happo One and Cortina. Goyru was the strictest of the three resorts we rode as far as restricting access to what we considered prime terrain, essentially all the tree runs. It was there, after cutting a rope to access the side country (and getting two fantastic powder runs back there) where half our group had their passes pulled for the violation. Ski patrol politely explained their rules were to protect the general ski population who lacked avalanche safety equipment and knowledge and because of occasional inbounds avalanches.
At Happo One we found what we came to call free refills on snow and easily accessible and challenging backcountry. We’d ride a tree line, take two chair lifts back to the top to do it again, only to find that with each run not only were our tracks filled in, but the snow was even deeper.
It was Cortina that stole my snowboarding soul, though. A small resort with only six chairlifts, it was also the catchers mitt of the valley, regularly receiving the brunt of the snowfall. A 40-minute taxi ride (about $20 each) got us there in time for first chair and fresh tracks down the most consistently pitched, perfectly spaced tree runs of my life. It’s hard to imagine this resort without the tree runs, which only opened to skiers and riders two years ago.
Along with all the snow also came hidden treasures and traps. There were the Japanese serow, or goat antelope, which Mike nearly jumped over as he dropped a pillow line; or the big Australian guy I nearly buried in a hole after jumping off a snow-covered bush he fell underneath. Luckily I heard his squeal of terror as I landed in a powder puff right next to him, and helped dig him out.
Each resort offered a slightly different experience and with over five feet of snow falling in seven days, each of us found exactly what we were looking for. Whether that meant riding untracked tree lines, ridges and shoots in-bounds all day long, pow-surfing an old abandoned ski hill or following some local Japanese riders off into the side country, no one left disappointed.
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With so much uncertainty still around travel, events, celebrations and plans in general, spontaneity has taken on a whole new meaning.