Sunday, March 17, 2013

Skiing Japan - Chapter 3

It snows in Northern Japan.  A LOT.  Here is Ash, marveling at the snowbanks in Hirafu village, near our hotel:

And here’s the info at one of the resorts’ base lodges:

420 cms is – if I’ve done my math right – a 13.8 foot base.  In early March.  Considering that they typically get Wasatch-style  snow densities of 4-5%– and in 2011 we had 750+ inches of snow in the Wasatch by late May that created a 12 foot base – they may likely be in the 1000-inch range for the season?!?!  It basically snows like mad.  British Columbia, with its copious snowfall, gets some amazing huffalumps (my own personal term for huge snow deposits in trees) but those are on evergreens; Hokkaido gets them on deciduous:

The only problem is that when I wacked a few of these to get the lumps to fall off, the branches came whipping up and in turn wacked me in the face!  Or perhaps could actually fall down and kill me:

I didn’t get a picture of it, but in the towns the plows actually now just harvest the snow; that is, they can’t blow it high enough to get over the banks, so like a combine harvesting wheat, they grind up the new snow and pitch it into a series of dump trucks, which of course have to cycle through pretty fast, because it doesn’t take long to fill a dump truck with snow after a foot-high storm!  But it comes in fast enough that the plows can barely keep up – and the temp got above freezing for a while the last couple of days - and we found that by far the most dangerous part of our trip was walking around town, and were wishing we had our little yaktrax-like spikes for our shoes and our ski boots (since we had to do a bit of walking around town in our boots.  Check out the gleaming pavement here:

We couldn’t believe there weren’t more pedestrian and car accidents, especially after seeing the mayhem caused by the icestorm in SLC this winter during the OR show (and considering that the likes of us consistently looked the wrong way when crossing the street!). 

After our one clear weather day, Hokkaido got back to doing what it does best – snowing  - and we decided that the lower slopes of the big Yotie volcano would provide some fun tree skiing:

Armed with Toshi’s maps, we got a taxi driver to take us to a very random spot in the middle of nowhere:

And fortunately were able to follow an old skin track through some very nondescript woods for a coupla kms, to the base of some nice open lines through the sparse trees at the base of the volcano.  Up we went, to pretty much the last possible tree, above which it was pure, vertigo-inducing whiteness.  

But the viz was fine down in the trees, and we were able to ski three awesome 1500-2000 foot runs through classic Japanese birch and pine tree lines:

The only potential problem with this day was that we again didn’t have a very firm exit strategy.  We thought it was a bit unrealistic to schedule a pickup by our taxi driver, but we were dropped off not far from a main road, but we weren’t sure if or how hitchhiking goes in Japan, but we were willing to give it a go.  Fortunately, after only 10 minutes, a super nice guy picked us up and gave us a ride  - out of his way, of course; they are SO nice! – back to our village:

Where our new accomodations awaited, since we freed ourselves from the Aussie Frat house and ended up in the nice BnB….

The next two few days were more of the same:  head to an area armed with Toshi’s maps, ski nice powder, revel in onsens after skiing, and eat great food, sometimes whilst skiing:

Where else can you get nice sushi to eat out on a nice powder tour? (well, I guess Smith's, Safeway, etc....but it seems so ....authentic in Japan!
  Our overall impressions of backcountry skiing in Japan (at least, in the little teeny microcosm where we were):

  1. There aren’t really “runs” per se; it’s either open terrain or very nicely-spaced trees.
  2. People there don’t charge very hard; the pace is slow (many are on snowboards with snowshoes to climb with), they ski half/two-thirds runs, and generally do short days. 
  3. Given points 1 and 2, terrain doesn’t really ever get tracked out, and if it does, just wait a day:  it’ll fill in by tomorrow. 
  4. Since it snows so much and the slopes are generally moderately-pitched, avalanche danger is typically low.  However, our last couple of days the temps and winds both increased dramatically, and as such not only did we see some natural avalanches and were being very careful in our decisions, there were apparently some significant slides on in-bounds terrain.  But it was fairly straightforward assessment.  And we did find some steeper terrain:
In short, if you’re a Middle Aged Powder Pussy (MAPP) with plenty of money to burn who wants guaranteed good powder all winter long without much fear of avalanches, Hokkaido is The Place.  And they do try to address the strange Japanese infatuation with smoking:

Then, it was off to Tokyo.....

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