Chas­ing se­ri­ous pow­der in “Ja­pan­uary”

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By John Bri­ley The Wash­ing­ton Post

You don’t have to go to Ja­pan to ski, eat sushi and soak in geo­ther­mal hot springs. But if you want deep pow­der with­out lift lines for $40 a day, the best sushi and ra­men in the world in in­ti­mate, fam­ily-run restau­rants and a naked soak in a 105-de­gree spring with a view of the vol­cano that is heat­ing your wa­ter, in the com­fort of your ho­tel, then fol­low the drift­ing snowflake to the Land of the Ris­ing Sun.

I am think­ing this as I sit in the bustling lodge at a two-lift ski area called Seki Onsen, pick­ing tunes on a pub­lic guitar that I pulled from the wall, with the melt­ing ves­tiges of a 15-inch pow­der day still drip­ping from my boots. I am sur­rounded by friends and strangers eat­ing noo­dle soup and drink­ing beer.

Seki Onsen is the small­est of six ski ar­eas that hug the lower flanks of Mount Myoko, an ac­tive vol­cano 175 miles north­west of Tokyo that juts, like a clenched fist, 8,051 feet into the sky. In one week here we will ski five of those ar­eas, plus two of the other 16 ski re­sorts that sit within an hour’s drive. (The word onsen, which means hot springs, is used lib­er­ally as a noun and verb in the many parts of Ja­pan where such waters bur­ble forth.)

Ten bud­dies and I have come from all over the United States to Akakura Onsen, a vil­lage in the high­lands sur­round­ing the city of Myoko, in late Jan­uary, hop­ing to tap a pow­der spigot renowned among com­mit­ted skiers. In a nor­mal win­ter, cold fronts pulse down from Siberia, suck mois­ture off the Sea of Ja­pan and spi­ral ashore, dump­ing up to 650 inches of snow per sea­son on the moun­tains here on Hon­shu and the

north­ern is­land of Hokkaido.

This me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal blitzkrieg is most ac­tive from De­cem­ber through Fe­bru­ary, a pat­tern that has spawned the noun “Ja­pan­uary” among pow­der chasers world­wide.

Alas, this isn’t a nor­mal win­ter in Myoko, some­thing we will hear of­ten this week. From my home in Wash­ing­ton, I watch with in­creas­ing gloom as front af­ter promis­ing front fiz­zles off­shore or rock­ets up to Hokkaido. The Myoko area, ac­cord­ing to a fore­cast blog I am fol­low­ing, is hav­ing its dri­est win­ter in mem­ory.

But hope — es­pe­cially when cor­nered by non­re­fund­able reser­va­tions — springs eter­nal, and the dry spell breaks the night we ar­rive. Af­ter a partly cloudy shut­tle ride from Tokyo’s Narita In­ter­na­tional Air­port, we take an exit for Akakura and smack straight into win­ter.

We find our way to the Morino Lodge, a three-story, Aus­tralianowned ho­tel. The en­tire first floor is open-flow com­mu­nal space, with couches, book­shelves, din­ing ta­bles and a small bar manned by a lanky, bearded Scot named Paul. In the glow of Ja­panese mi­cro­brew, with the pow­der fac­tory churn­ing away out­side, I feel the haze of 22 hours of travel start to lift.

In the morn­ing, we watch the con­tin­u­ing snow through big pic­ture win­dows as waves of pan­cakes, eggs, ba­con, oat­meal and fruit stream out of the kitchen. We suit up and walk five min­utes to the clos­est ski hill, also named Akakura Onsen, where our lodge man­ager’s crys­tal­clear direc­tion — buy ticket here, ride this lift, then trans­fer to this one — smashes into an im­pen­e­tra­ble lan­guage bar­rier. With two ad­ja­cent re­sorts, we don’t know if we want a pass for one, the other, or both. Do we buy the lunch-in­cluded ticket, or is that a mar­ket­ing gim­mick? Where, ex­actly, are the most cov­eted pow­der stashes?

Even­tu­ally, the smil­ing ladies at the ticket counter take a pile of yen from us, slide 11 tick­ets across the counter and ges­ture us to­ward the slopes. Af­ter rid­ing one lift over dead-flat ground and another up a bunny slope, we solve the map and make our way to the top of the in­ter­con­nected Akakura Kanko re­sort, where the new snow is more than a foot deep and still ac­cu­mu­lat­ing.

The Ja­panese, who were largely ab­sent at the Morino Lodge, have gath­ered in mi­nor force on the moun­tain, stick­ing mainly to the cen­ter of the marked runs. That leaves am­ple lanes of pow­der on the mar­gins, and we spend the morn­ing feast­ing on the new snow, bump­ing far­ther into the woods with each run.

Akakura, like most Ja­panese re­sorts, for­bids off-trail ski­ing, a rule that many for­eign­ers ig­nore. As the storm peters out, I no­tice that we are shar­ing the trees with a broad­en­ing mul­ti­cul­tural group. Some­one else no­tices too: I emerge from the as­pens af­ter yet one more pow­der bash to see a strate­gi­cally po­si­tioned ski pa­troller mo­tion­ing me into a cir­cle of wor­ried-look­ing dudes. He points to my lift pass and, with­out a spo­ken word, adds it to a stack in his hand.

As we plead our cases in our na­tive tongues, the pa­troller shakes his head and points up at the trees with a clear mes­sage: off lim­its. Just as we’re all giv­ing up and start­ing to shuf­fle away, he calls us back and re­dis­tributes the seized passes.

I meet my friends for lunch in a small mid-moun­tain restau­rant, where we are chal­lenged to or­der and pay for the food at a wall-mounted ma­chine — with photos and prices but no English in­struc­tions — be­fore step­ping around the cor­ner to re­ceive our steam­ing bowls of noo­dles and tem­pura from a more-fa­mil­iar cafe­te­ria line of hu­mans.

The tech-as­sisted or­der­ing is a rare nod to Ja­panese ef­fi­ciency in the coun­try’s ski in­dus­try, most of which is stuck in the 1980s, and not in­ten­tion­ally.

“When some­thing gets hot in Ja­pan, every­one — and I mean every­one — does it,” says Bill Glude, an af­fa­ble Alaskan who has been a ski guide in Ja­pan since 2004. “That was ski­ing in the 1980s,” a decade when the coun­try’s econ­omy was on fire. “They built up all this in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port the ob­ses­sion. Then the econ­omy crashed and peo­ple just stopped ski­ing.”

Some re­sorts shut down. Oth­ers limped along in bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion, which left lit­tle cash for on-moun­tain im­prove­ments. As a re­sult there are few high­speed lifts in Ja­pan, and some ar­eas, in­clud­ing Seki, fea­ture what are af­fec­tion­ately known as “pizza box” lifts — sin­gle-seat chairs with only the sug­ges­tion of a back­rest. There are ex­cep­tions to this throw­back vibe, no­tably at the big­ger re­sorts on Hokkaido and in the Hakuba area, a two-hour drive south of Myoko.

The lack of new in­vest­ment is most ev­i­dent in the lay­out of the re­sorts. Too many lifts ter­mi­nate just be­low the most al­lur­ing ter­rain, and I con­tin­u­ally catch my­self gaz­ing up at chutes, glades and bowls, will­ing a chair­lift to ap­pear.

We find the best pitches at a burly moun­tain called Madarao, where 15 lifts serve 30 runs on a ver­ti­cal drop of 1,500 feet, in­clud­ing nu­mer­ous glades and a few shots of steep trees. I can see how this would be a pow­der hound’s par­adise in a nor­mal year, but we make the best of it by find­ing scraps of un­sul­lied snow in the woods be­fore turn­ing to soft moguls and long, rip­ping groomers.

The drought, thank­fully, has not im­pacted the food sup­ply. We hit a dif­fer­ent restau­rant ev­ery night, most dec­o­rated in an odd mix of tra­di­tional art, yel­low­ing ski photos and trail maps. Each is a restora­tive ad­ven­ture, in­clud­ing udon noo­dles in black squid ink, kim­chi ra­men, tra­di­tional Ja­panese oden and, at Sushi Takasago, but­tery cuts of fish and hot sake de­liv­ered by an ever-smil­ing ma­tron. As we are leav­ing, she and her hus­band, who is clean­ing up the sushi bar be­neath a glass-cased dis­play of 29 large, gleam­ing fish­hooks, hands us slices of the sweet­est, crispi­est ap­ple I have ever tasted. Upon re­al­iz­ing that half our group has al­ready de­parted, the own­ers in­sist we wait while they slice up more, which they bag for us to take back to our crew.

That sushi in­dul­gence aside, most of our meals run un­der $20 a head, beers and saki in­cluded – another draw for vis­it­ing skiers. Around town we meet ski gyp­sies from Bri­tain, Switzer­land, France, Fin­land, New York and Maine. But mostly we meet Aus­tralians, who flock here to ski and party.

Fresh tracks

With Glude and his ap­pren­tice, Mit­sui, a cheer­ful, snow­board­ing son of a salary­man from Osaka, we drive an hour south­west from Akakura to a one-lift re­sort where we find fewer than 10 other peo­ple ski­ing the place. From the sum­mit we can see the dark blue hori­zon of the Sea of Ja­pan. The pow­der that fell three days ago is undis­turbed, as Glude knew it would be be­cause the re­sort had been closed through­out the week­end due to high winds.

We spend the morn­ing bound­ing through 1,600-ver­ti­cal-foot laps of shin-deep pow­der, fresh turns on ev­ery run. Af­ter a ra­men break in a log cabin at the top of the lift, where a vin­tage 1980s Pi­o­neer stereo sys­tem idles in a cor­ner — a totem to a by­gone era in Ja­pan — Glude and Mit­sui lead us on a short back­coun­try tour to one of the best views in Ja­pan: an alpine mo­saic of peaks and val­leys, con­tours and ridges, snow, rock, trees and more snow, cul­mi­nat­ing in the smok­ing cone of a vol­cano five miles away.

On the drive back, we stop for photos of a dis­tant Mount Myoko when move­ments in the woods draw our at­ten­tion: snow mon­keys. Two, three and sud­denly dozens skit­ter up and down trees, swing­ing from branches, cau­tiously check­ing us out be­fore dart­ing off.

See­ing these guys in the wild wasn’t on my list, but I retroac­tively add it – one less thing to check off when I re­turn dur­ing a nor­mal win­ter.

Photo for The Wash­ing­ton Post by Robin O'Neill

Sarah Frood tran­si­tions into down­hill mode af­ter a short hike up to the un­tracked slack­coun­try at Goyru Re­sort, Habuka, Ja­pan.

The Wash­ing­ton Post

Skiers break for lunch at the lodge atop Char­mant Hi­uchi, near Itoigawa, Ja­pan. Ra­men with fresh veg­eta­bles, meat and seafood is a sta­ple on lunch menus here. John Bri­ley, The Wash­ing­ton Post

Izzy Lynch skis through deep pow­der in the trees at Cortina Re­sort in Hakuba Ja­pan. Robin O'Neill, Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

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