Five years ago Ashley and I succumbed to the reports of epic powder in Japan that we had heard about, and despite never being that interested in Japan or its culture (not sure why, really...it's old, rich, complicated, and fascinating) we went over for a quick trip and saw the light...at least, what little we could see through the copious snow that fell from the sky and blew around our faces. As the anemic early winter snowpack didn't accumulate in Utah we saw the writing on the wall: when it was going to snow it was going to be challenging at best (the Ironic Insult to Injury of a lean snow year is that when it doesn't snow much the avalanche danger typically is also much higher when it does actually snow) and it was time to return to the Land Of The Rising Sun And Deep Powder (LOTRSADP)!
Many people are surprised that there is even skiing in Japan much less being a global ski hub, but there are actually over 500 ski resorts, even though it's 4% of the size of the US, and from December through March in Japan.....it snows. A lot. Our last trip there was in late February and the base snow depth at the resorts was 15 feet, even though it's at the same latitude as Utah and the mountains only top out at 6000 feet and typically the skiing is between 1000 and 3000 feet. In a nutshell, the reason for this phenomenon is because they are just across the Sea of Japan from Siberia and storms consistently sweep down, pick up moisture from the Sea, and dump it on the first land that pushes that air upwards, which is the smaller northern island of Hokkaido and the northern section of Honshu (the "main" island). The Wasatch Weather Weenie Jim Steenburgh, who is one of the world's experts on "lake effect" snowfall, calls it a winter monsoon, and just a couple of weeks ago published a blog post on Japan here, and here is an (unpermitted; hope Jim doesn't mind!) image showing it:
Our first adventure within the adventure began right when we hit the ground; our flight over was late, and as we were exiting the plane in Tokyo a gate agent was holding up a sign with our names on it; yes, what up? "We saw that you were coming in late and we were worried that you may not make your connection, so we are here to help!" Wow, welcome to the supernice Japanese people. That gate agent hustled us to our connecting airline gate people, who processed us quickly and then two of them grabbed a couple of our bags and - even though they were dressed impeccably and were sporting high heels - asked very nicely "can you run?!" And off we all ran to catch our flight!
|a respite on the hgh-heeled gate-agent chase while we are on the inter-terminal train.|
was "big problem". huh? "You need international drivers license!" Wow, ok, how do I get one? "must be in home country!" Wait a minute, I am a 'Murican! Make America Great Again! America First, even when it comes to drivers licenses! Getting an international drivers license means sending $20 to AAA and getting a piece of paper, but according to the 1949 Geneva Convention rules (not kidding) that's the way it is. Once we recognized that we weren't getting a car we did an abrupt strategy shift, and a quick scramble to connect into Japan's extensive and prompt public transit system we were on a bus heading for Furano within 30 mins, even as we were cautioned that some bus reservations need to be made far in advance. Whatever; we'll deal as it comes....
Furano is both a city and an adjacent ski resort, and has fun sidecountry (and there's a great Aussie who has been in that area for a zillion years who is super helpful: John Worrell) . Which brings up another interesting point about Japan; Japanese skiers like to ski on piste, and even within resorts un-groomed slopes are really only skied by Westerners, and much of the "backcountry" skiing is resort sidecountry that in the US would be hammered within hours, but in Japan stays untrammeled for days. And something as simple as a 10 minute hike from the top of the tram (all Japanese resorts sell 1-ride tickets for cheap) and dropping off the backside that requires skinning to get out ensures untracked turns. So we spent a couple of days doing that, including one with our SLC friends Jeff and Janine Wood, Christine Hasagawa, and Lauren Scholnick.
|Christine gave us this new use for a Buff; trim off a bottom strip and use it as a noseguard!|
|like a typical Wasatch trailhead!|
|this was a mountain club outing; I think they optimistically anticipated going out for a snowcamp, but we saw them later when they had wisely dumped their packs.|
"Onsen" is Japanese for hot springs, and is one of the only words you need to know as a skier in Japan. We assumed it was also a verb, and thus we were always keen for onsening, which apparently is a big part of life all over Japan. The Tokachidake is part of the Ryounkaku hotel, and it's one of the best:
|One of the rules of onsening is "no photos", and even tho I was tempted to be the boorish American and do it anyway, I poached this from their website.|
and sometime in the night, after the wind event, as if to apologize for its ferocity the heavens dropped down about 8 or so inches of gentle fluff onto the supportable windjack, and thus our snowpack was revived in only hours. And thus again we partaked in more blower powder:
|some nice angulation in the carvable cream!|
|We bumped into Kelsey from the Utah on the skin track, who was sporting her own Wasatch Backcountry Alliance buff!|
|sick air brah!|
|riding the bus in my ski boots; I forgot my shoes at a previous hotel for 3 days, but didn't need them, and they were still happily awaiting me in their little cubby when I returned.|
|one of the few brief minutes of sun we saw on the trip.|
|big snowbanks for mid season|
|When they don't plow the road, the snow stacks up, and they have whole villages focused around onsening...|
|If you can't find a bus, the taxi drivers are fearless in the snow and are quite nattily-dressed|
|lapping it up|
|Everybody's happy about powder snow|
|the snowy view out the breakfast window towards Shiribetsu|
|a small but oh-so-good volcano|
|A pic of a pic; Shiribetsu is in the foreground, the much bigger Yotei is behind (an amazing day in clear weather). The Clydesdale in near the fields at the base.|
And there are some nice amenities:
|beer vending machines|
|drinking fountain/toilet combos|
|cut little cars with really small wheels, which makes for a lot more interior space for the size.|
|beautiful snowy trees|
|snow removal is a constant battle in Hokkaido|
|I think I'm Turning Japanese I really think so think so think so!|