Cool customers in Japan
The thrill of fresh, untracked snow in beautiful backcountry
FOR mountain guide Bill Ross, it’s been a rough start to the day. He’s had a sleepless night and an early start, and then managed to scrape his neighbour’s car with his snow blower while clearing an overnight dump of snow from his driveway.
But as we strap on snowshoes beneath our ski boots and start climbing the slopes below Mt Myoko, a typically broad smile returns to Ross’s face. Although he’s been guiding skiers in the mountains around Myoko Kogen resort for 15 years, every trip still gets him excited.
We have decided to catch a lift to the top of the Ikenotaira Onsen ski area — one of Myoko Kogen’s four main areas — and hike up a nearby peak, then ski down the valley between Ikenotaira and the neighbouring Akakura Kanko Resort.
With our snowshoes blazing a trail through the white carpet of fresh snow, we trek up through birch forest in bright sunshine as Ross explains how his service operates. Like his contemporaries at other Japanese resorts, he offers skiers a chance to find fresh, untracked snow outside the main ski areas, and to do so safely.
It’s an increasingly appealing option for visitors to Japan, as ungroomed sections of mountains are often roped off and many resorts work hard to ensure skiers stay on designated trails.
Our chosen course is a perfect introduction to backcountry skiing in Japan. The climb takes from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on fitness, and the pitch of the descent is not steep.
‘‘There are more people doing backcountry skiing these days, both Japanese and foreigners, but some should go with a guide once or twice at first,’’ Ross tells me. It’s good advice, particularly for skiers from Australia, where there’s almost never enough snow to worry about avalanches.
Myoko, on the other hand, gets an average of 15m of snow a year, and while the gradient of the slopes is not as steep as at many European and North American resorts, avalanches do occur.
For intermediate to advanced skiers, there is some in-bounds offpiste skiing at Myoko, and the policy of most ski areas here is less strict than elsewhere in Japan. But for those chasing a long, uninterrupted descent through untracked powder, hiking up to a nearby peak is always tempting.
Soon enough we come to the end of our climb, a mountain shelf at the top of the valley, and have a quick bite to eat before the descent. The views are spectacular and Ross points out Lake Nojiri nearby and the resort on the other side of the valley, Tangram Madarao. Although it’s not visible today, sometimes you can see the coast to the west.
As we get ready to ski down, he says today’s course is free from cornices or gullies or other avalanche hazards, but gives me a transceiver, just in case, and shows me how we can locate each other.
We also dig a pit, leaving only a central column of snow. We test it by patting it lightly with a snow shovel, then progressively more firmly. It stays intact at first, but when it breaks down it sloughs off evenly throughout the column. What Ross is watching for is if a harder slice of packed snow slides out intact, as that would suggest a layer of heavy snow that could give way as a large plane, triggering an avalanche.
Having strapped the snowshoes on our backs, we shuffle over the edge of the slope. Ross takes off, first carving out some neat turns into the forest.
I set off next, with Myoko Tourist Office chief Shiro Shimizu, a former ski j umper for Japan, following. The first few turns in the powder feel odd until I get into a rhythm and start tracing out evenly spaced turns down the slope. Initially we drop into a wide track beneath an abandoned ski lift and follow it down for 500m before ducking off into the forest again. The trick is to not look at the trees; Ross assures me that the right lines to ski will appear as the forest closes in.
He’s right, although my progress is less smooth than his, even though he’s on telemark gear and I am on normal alpine skis. Despite the odd steeper pitch, it’s not a difficult run and well within the capabilities of strong intermediate skiers, particularly on wide skis designed for skiing powder.
After an exhilarating descent, the slope eventually flattens out and we head over a series of undulations. Ross says he often surprises snowshoe hares ( Lepus americanus) between the undulations but all we see are their tracks. Eventually we emerge on to a golf course and ski across it to meet the main road, from where it’s a short walk back to our starting point at the Hotel Windsor.
The tall and laconic Ross has several strings to his bow. Aformer native of Minneapolis, he’s been in Japan for the past 28 years and is the editor of Outdoor Japan, a bilingual adventure magazine. He also runs a telemark ski school that’s the oldest in the country.
Australian visitor numbers to Myoko have been gradually increasing, although Ross describes it as more of a gentle invasion than the surge that has descended on Niseko in the northernmost island of Hokkaido.
Ski school owners Tom Langtry and his wife Nozomi both worked at Niseko before starting Myoko Snow Sports in 2009-10. This Australian-Japanese couple say they have seen local culture squeezed out in Niseko and don’t want to see the same happen in Myoko. Their school offers English-language instruction with instructors hired mostly from Victoria’s Falls Creek, which is where the Langtrys work during the Japanese summer.
Shimizu and his wife, Amy, explain that Myoko attracts a different crowd from Niseko, Hakuba and other resorts; they say it appeals most to families or middle-aged groups of skiers. There’s little in the way of nightclubs or fancy restaurants, although the collection of small restaurants and basement izakaya (Japanese pubs, although with an emphasis on food) offers skiers a good range of places to unwind and eat well after a day on the slopes.
We try Izakaya Kei and a nice basement udon noodle bar called Fu in the Akakura part of the resort, and for those Australians who are keen to meet their fellow countrymen and swap ski stories, the bar at the nearby Hotel Windsor is the place to go. It also offers accommodation and a childminding service.
The owners sometimes put on shows of Japanese taiko drumming, and during my trip one of the instructors is dragged out to play Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik with a friend on their violins. It’s an extraordinary performance and it turns out they used to play for a leading philharmonic orchestra, although with typical Japanese modesty this information originally had to be prised out of the instructor when it became clear to friends on the mountain that his playing was better than that of an enthusiastic amateur.
With so much skiing on
offer, most visitors seem to snatch an early night and wake up fresh and ready for more.
Of the four areas, Akakura Kanko offers the most challenging terrain, including some off-piste skiing in the trees accessed via the topmost chair.
Suginohara boasts the longest run in Japan, an 8.5km course that follows the fall line and offers a groomed carpet to practise long, sweeping turns.
Ikenotaira pitches itself at snowboarders and has three terrain parks, while Akakura Onsen is well suited to children. Nearby Seki Onsen is a good place for powder, although it has just two lifts, the slopes are never groomed and there aren’t really marked trails, so it’s a case of carving a path where you wish.
Myoko Kogen offers a good range of mid to upper-level accommodation. I stay at Furuya, small traditional lodgings with an excellent group onsen bath and either Western or Japanese rooms (some with private onsen); it has been run by the same family for three generations. The blueribbon pick is Akakura Kanko Hotel, which, unlike most of the accommodation at Myoko, is actually up on the mountain rather than along the main road. It’s been a traditional winter holiday destination for Japan’s royal family.
The shinkansen (bullet train) line to Nagano, put in before the 1998 Winter Olympics, means that Myoko can be reached in about 21/ hours from Tokyo, yet it
2 remains something of an undiscovered gem amid Japan’s myriad ski resorts. Rick Wallace is The Australian’s Tokyo correspondent; he was a guest of the Myoko Tourist Office. Christmas-New Year period. The wise owl will swoop before the early bird has flown.
The most popular ski destinations for Australians on Honshu, such as Shiga Kogen, Hakuba and Myoko, are on the opposite side of the island to where the tsunami struck. The relatively new Tohoku ski scene, closest to the eastern disaster region, has the popular resorts of Zao and Appi.
Other top Aussie choices are Niseko, Rusutsu and Furano on the north island of Hokkaido.
‘‘We’ve certainly had lots of inquiries stemming from next season’s brochure,’’ says Kumiko Hardy of Japan ski holiday specialist JTB Australia. ‘‘People are now checking the prices. Australians don’t really book Japan this early — they usually wait until the local ski season is drawing to a close.’’
Early-bird booking examples (land content only, twin-share) include: Hakuba five-night family package from $697 adult, $364 child (pay by November 15); Hakuba, stay seven nights and pay six, from $1041; Niseko seven nights from $1116; Myoko eight nights from $1554; Furano eight nights from $1101; Shiga Kogen, stay seven and pay six, from $1188. More: japanski.com.au.
Skiing the powder off the beaten track at Myoko Kogen is an increasingly appealing option for visitors
A Japanese macaque at a hot spring at Jigokudani Yaenkoen, near Shiga Kogen in Japan
Looking towards the Akakura Kanko Hotel beneath Mt Myoko