Cool cus­tomers in Ja­pan

The thrill of fresh, un­tracked snow in beau­ti­ful back­coun­try

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Northern Hemisphere - RICK WAL­LACE ROB WOOD­BURN

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.

JNTO

Ski­ing the powder off the beaten track at Myoko Ko­gen is an in­creas­ingly ap­peal­ing op­tion for vis­i­tors

RICK WAL­LACE

A Ja­panese macaque at a hot spring at Jigoku­dani Yaenkoen, near Shiga Ko­gen in Ja­pan

RICK WAL­LACE

Look­ing to­wards the Akakura Kanko Ho­tel be­neath Mt Myoko

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