The most obvious question regarding flying to Japan to go powder skiing when we have comparable snow and steeper terrain is.....why? And admittedly, we have never really had a yen (so to speak) to go to Japan or much curiosity about the culture. However, that all changed a little over a year ago when our friend Brett Keyes went to Hokkaido last year and when I sent him an email asking how it was he simply sent back a photo of his head and hands roaring through epic powder. It was definitely something to make you say "Hmmmm. Maybe I should go there."
Later he gave me more details and summarized it by saying "Those guys get it. Awesome food, hot springs (onsens) everywhere, super friendly and helpful people; it just feels 'refined.' Now, "refined" is not necessarily a word that is often associated with me, but I need all the help I can get, and further discussions with other friends and the realization that interesting travel to unique culture, great food, famously-nice people, and skiing untracked blower come together perfectly in Japan.
Initially we thought that going to the Japanese Alps (centered by Nagano, the '98 Olympic host city) would be best for a quick trip, and it apparently has bigger, wilder terrain than Hokkaido, but with a quick flight to Sapporo we could be in the classic Hokkaido ski experience in the same amount of time. Also, about the time that we needed to decide where to go the Wasatch Weather Weenie (http://wasatchweatherweenies.
SLC's lake effect storms, so how could we go wrong in the world capital?!
One aspect of the trip caused me a bit of angst: pre-trip planning. Historically we have just chosen a place to go, bought the Lonely Planet guide book the day before we leave, read it on the plane, and then wing it. However, everyone we talked to strongly encouraged us to do a bit of pre-booking of things, which always makes me a bit nervous; I get twitchy getting locked into plans, since one of the beauties of traveling is the ability to be spontaneous and flexible. But book ahead (a bit) I did, and I must admit that all went smoothly. Until, that is, we walked into our intended lodging called the "Hirafu Backpackers" where I had booked three nights. I can't remember how I found it/why I booked it, but it's very much a hostel, which is almost - but not quite - "hotel", and I had sorta forgotten that "hostel" seems to be Aussie for "Frat House." It was a stark reminder that Ash and I have more or less moved on from meals of Top Ramen, skanky beds, drinking games, wanton drunkenness, and late night yelling to staying at cute b and b's owned by local characters, good food, and having fellow middle-aged fuddy duddies to exchange info on where to get the best organic meals. Which of course we found and moved into in due course. Embracing our inner dorks indeed.
On to the skiing.....all the beta we had received was strongly encouraging to have a guide. Getting to the trailheads via public transportation could be challenging even if you knew Japanese, and the fact that it snows ALL the time so it's hard to see the intricacies of the goods means that local knowledge can be super valuable. So another thing I booked prior to leaving the US was a guided trip on our first day.
We were rescued from the hostel by Toshi, a great guy who was our guide for the day, and hopped into the van that had a coupla of other clients in it already. My heart sank a bit when I saw that Giles had a pretty healthy double chin, and a bit more when he announced he was from England. Toshi later admitted that when he had Scandinavians and Americans tell him that they were good skiers and had backcountry experience they actually were the former and did have the latter, but Englishmen generally either lied or were clueless about both. Giles' buddy was Shingo, his Japanese work compatriot, and when we got to the tiny, one-lift resort we were going to start from I looked over and saw Toshi showing Shingo how to put skins on the skis (which were huge Armada skis with heavy Marker Duke bindings, but at least he had full alpine boots with no walk mode!) and how to deploy an avy probe. Given that we had been cooped up travelling for a couple of days and were ready to charge, it was clear that Toshi was going to have his hands full with client management! And the fact that it was snowing quite hard, they'd had a major storm the last two days, and was windy meant that the avy conditions weren't a gimme, so needless to say weren't going to be looking to Giles and Shingo when the shit went down!
We started marching up into the gloom to ascend Chisen Puri, the local peak ("Puri" is the Hokkaido natives' term for "mountain") and after not very long we glanced back and saw that indeed our fellow clients were barely moving. Soon enough we got onto some wind hammered, 30 degree slopes that were a little slippery, and knew that things were only going to - literally - go downhill from there. We got to the very cold, windy summit and quickly decided to do a lap, so down we went, and when we got to Toshi - who was still with Giles - he was happy that we had decided to do a lap (would an American or Canadian or Swiss guide be so amenable so quickly?). We skinned back up and saw that indeed Shingo was struggling with the technical skinning. We gave him some token encouraging words and headed back up to the summit, where we saw Toshi coming back down to Shingo. We bundled up and chatted with Giles and wondered what Toshi would do. After a fair bit of time Toshi reappeared and said that Shingo was headed back on his own, which of course made Toshi very nervous; leaving a client - particulalrly a newby - to fend for himself, even in a relatively benign situation is far less than ideal for a guide. But promises to check in via cell phones helped enable a successful outcome to the first issue.
It was then time for the four of us to ski the main line off the peak on a slightly different aspect. It was windloaded but a quick pit indicated a pretty good bond and it wasn't very steep, so we felt ok about it. A typical Canadian guide would set the first line for a "handrail", but Toshi offered it to us. We figured that skiing a thousand foot line of untracked blower powder would pretty much be the best run of our portly English friend's life, so we in turn offered it up to him. He slowly and dreadfully skied about half of it, then stopped dead center and looked up at us expectantly, while we screamed over the wind to "keep going!" He must have gotten that, so he did.....for another 10 turns or so, then stopped again. We agreed that by this point the slope had been successfully tested, so I blasted on down past Giles into the flats at the bottom. Giles followed, and unfortunately didn't see a small wind-roll and pretty much dove over it en route to a spectacular faceplant. But as expected, he was buzzing hard after what indeed probably was the best run of his life.
Despite the fact that we had only done a couple of runs we'd been out for quite some time and were pretty hungry so we rustled around for some snacks. Given our long wait on top we were a little chilled and were hoping for a quick bite and transition, but when Ash saw Giles plop down on his pack she said "where are we headed?" And started marching in the appropriate direction. Toshi shook his head and said "she's very strong" and I agreed. Giles just smacked his lips over one of the two candy bars he brought as "lunch."
Ash put in a nice, guide/client-friendly skin track up an 800 foot glade, which we then skied. We did another lap, and on the next trip up I saw Giles sort of half-walking, half-skiing down the steepest part of the glade. "Giles, what's going on? What are you doing? "That skin track is impossible! I fell off of it! Wait til you see that section!" I looked up just in time to see Ash blissfully stroll past the impassable section. I just shrugged and followed her on up for another run.
Eventually we all ended up on top of a ridge at the same time and skied a nice thousand foot home run that ended near a big thermal pond. It was a bit disconcerting because not only did the steam create a dense cloud, it also steamed up glasses and goggles and Ash almost skied into a "crevasse" that dropped 20 feet into open water.
But soon enough we ended up at a "real" onsen for a great soak in perfect-temp water for a very civilized ending to our day (more on onsens later). And the disparity in clients ended up well for us, because Toshi felt so bad about the situation that he took us to the local outdoor gear shop and after we bought some topo maps showed us where all the goods were and how to access them for the remainder of our week!
More to come....with photos. (canｔ quitえ figure out how to upload them）