SLOW SKI­ING

in re­mote Hon­shu has as much to do with onsen soak­ing, for­est bathing and snow-capped shrines as it does with Ja­pan’s famed pow­der

Condé Nast Traveller Middle East - - Contents - Adam H Gra­ham WRIT­TEN BY PHO­TOGRAPHED BY Paola& Mur­ray

Adam H Gra­ham heads to Hon­shu where onsen soak­ing, for­est bathing and snow-capped shrines have as much to do with the ex­pe­ri­ence

as Ja­pan’s famed pow­der

I’M IN THE FRONT SEAT OF A TOY­OTA DRIV­ING THROUGH A TO­TAL white­out with two-me­tre snow banks on ei­ther side of the road. Only 20 min­utes ear­lier we were in a sun-drenched val­ley known for its peaches, ki­wis and chardon­nay grapes, but a few corkscrew turns led us, Candy­land-style, to this alpine won­der­land. Thank­fully, the driver, Oyama-san, knows the road well. He and my guide, Maya, speak in Ja­panese with pro­longed aizuchi, fre­quent in­ter­jec­tions that in­di­cate the lis­tener is at­tuned to the speaker. “Un, un. Hai, hai, hai. Sou desu-ka.” I’m not sure what they’re say­ing, but as we round an­other em­bank­ment I think, how does any­thing sur­vive these harsh win­ters? Just then, Oyama-san stops the car and points up to a bar­ren tree. “Snow mon­keys!” he says, grin­ning. “Ja­panese macaques.” I look up through the hoary swirls of a Ja­panese north-coun­try win­ter sky and see shriv­elled faces the colour of June cher­ries.

Their lips move slowly while they nib­ble cy­press bark. “They’re al­ways eat­ing,” Maya says. “Just like Ja­panese,” Oyama-san adds. “Amer­i­cans, too!” I quip. We all laugh at the corny group joke, as you do in Ja­pan.

We’re in the pre­fec­ture of Fukushima, Ja­pan’s third largest, roughly the size of Ja­maica. The Dai­ichi Nu­clear Power Plant, where the 2011 melt­down oc­curred in the wake of a 7.0-mag­ni­tude earth­quake, is 120km east, sep­a­rated by sev­eral moun­tain ridges that pre­vented dan­ger­ous ra­di­a­tion from reach­ing this area. (The evac­u­a­tion zone was a 19km ra­dius around the plant.) But I haven’t come to ex­plore the dis­as­ter’s fall­out, nor to see the snow mon­keys. I’m here to ski, snow­shoe and hike for seven nights through To­hoku, the north­ern-most re­gion of Ja­pan’s main is­land,

Hon­shu, which con­tains the Ao­mori, Akita, Iwate, Ya­m­a­gata,

Miyagi and Fukushima pre­fec­tures. This snowy swath of To­hoku’s Ou Moun­tains is also the set­ting for the Ja­panese poet Mat­suo Basho’s Nar­row Road To The Deep North. It has the rusty eeri­ness of Stephen King’s New Eng­land, the vol­canic ten­sion of Hawaii and the earthy mys­ti­cism of the An­des. Sprin­kle in Camelot and Mid­dle Earth wiz­ardry, snowy Shinto shrines and miles of off-radar piste for good mea­sure.

“Why would you leave Switzer­land in Fe­bru­ary to ski in Ja­pan?” a Swiss friend in my home­town of Zurich asked me. Rat­tled by the ar­ro­gance of the ques­tion, I quickly re­sponded, “I’m Slow

Ski­ing in Ja­pan,” which, like Slow Food, I imag­ined would in­volve a more holis­tic, con­sid­ered ap­proach to the win­ter sport, bol­stered with sukiyaki feasts, med­i­ta­tive onsen soaks and shin­rin-yoku (for­est bathing) in the pres­ence of mys­te­ri­ous moun­tain hermits. “You don’t have that in Switzer­land.” To be clear, Slow Ski­ing is not a real phe­nom­e­non, as far as I know. But it should be, es­pe­cially in Ja­pan, which is mis­tak­enly de­fined by its fast pace. The longer I thought about Slow Ski­ing, the more sense it made. I ski in Switzer­land reg­u­larly and have twice skied in Ja­pan, at the pop­u­lar re­sorts of Hakuba in Nagano pre­fec­ture – host of the 1998 Win­ter Olympics – and Niseko on the is­land of Hokkaido. Like St Moritz and Aspen, they were al­most too in­ter­na­tional, cater­ing to for­eign­ers and not Ja­panese enough for me. And on both trips, I re­gret­ted not

spend­ing more time off-slope, de­spite Ja­pan’s ex­cel­lent trade­mark “JaPow” (Ja­pan pow­der) – su­per-dry snow caused by a unique ma­rine ef­fect that car­ries pre­cip­i­ta­tion from Siberia across the Sea of Ja­pan to Hon­shu, of­fi­cially among the world’s snowiest places, with up to 38m each year. Even if JaPow lives up to the hype as a worth­while pil­grim­age for pow­der buffs, fly­ing long-haul only to bomb down piste with a gra­nola bar is like vis­it­ing Paris and eat­ing at McDon­ald’s. I wanted Ja­pan’s sa­cred mo­ments, ex­quis­ite culi­nary ex­pe­ri­ences and bizarre sur­prises, like sake parades and cos­tumed ski-re­sort mas­cots. Ski­ing in To­hoku promised all that.

Shinkansen, Ja­pan’s bul­let train, is the best way to get there. Maya, from the travel out­fit­ter Re­mote Lands, picked me up at my Marunouchi dis­trict ho­tel and we walked in our snow boots over sunny, dry streets to Tokyo Sta­tion. I’d used guides in Ja­pan be­fore, with mixed re­sults. But this re­mote, snow­blan­keted re­gion is an es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult place to nav­i­gate, so it made sense to use one, and Maya was an ex­cel­lent match. Be­fore the trip, I’d ex­plained my Slow Ski con­cept to Re­mote Lands, who helped pre­pare my itin­er­ary. Maya spent her teen years in Con­necti­cut and re­turned to her na­tive Tokyo with her par­ents in the Nineties. Ex­tremely well-trav­elled, she had skied ex­ten­sively in Switzer­land so she un­der­stood both Ja­pan and the West well. We first bonded over our mu­tual love of cheese. “Ja­pan’s just start­ing to make de­cent cheeses, but noth­ing as good as Em­men­tal and Gruyère,” she said.

Our 90-minute ride made an Im­pres­sion­ist paint­ing of the land­scape, and we whizzed past Eight­ies-era sky­scrapers, sub­ur­ban su­per­mar­kets and even­tu­ally red torii gates gleam­ing on hill­tops coated with fresh snow. At Shin-Shi­rakawa Sta­tion, on the edge of the moun­tains, we met Oyama-san, a tall and hum­ble sin­gle dad who would be our driver and fel­low ad­ven­turer for the next three days. He drove us an­other 90 min­utes to Aizu, the west­ern-most re­gion of Fukushima (and far­thest from the east coast’s nu­clear re­ac­tor site). We as­cended twisty roads and crossed bridges to get to that im­pos­ing wall of iced bundt cakes that de­fine the Ou Moun­tains, each mile lead­ing away from colour and into the win­try gos­samer. “Out of the long tun­nel into the snow coun­try,” Maya said from the back seat af­ter we ex­ited a tun­nel into a void of white. “It’s a line from No­bel

“Slow Ski­ing in Ja­pan, I imag­ined, would in­volve a more holis­tic, con­sid­ered ap­proach to the win­ter sport, bol­stered with sukiyaki

feasts, med­i­ta­tive onsen soaks and for­est bathing”

Lau­re­ate Ya­sunari Kawa­bata’s novel Snow Coun­try, writ­ten about Yuzawa, about 200km away. But if the shoe fits.”

Like To­hoku, Aizu is an an­cient feu­dal re­gion that pre­dates the mod­ernised pre­fec­tural sys­tem. It was home to Ja­pan’s last samu­rai clan, which dis­ap­peared dur­ing the Meiji Restora­tion in 1868. But the snow was so blind­ing that day that it elim­i­nated the hori­zon al­to­gether, mak­ing sight­see­ing a chal­lenge. Tsu­ruga Cas­tle, a mod­ern replica of the 14th-cen­tury struc­ture that was the last bas­tion of samu­rai war­riors, ap­peared as a chalky smudge on a hill. Sazaedo tem­ple is a dou­ble-he­lix-shaped wooden build­ing sur­rounded by gur­gling brooks, ponds and a man­i­cured gar­den; on a clear day it would have been In­sta­gram-plat­inum. And later on, what should have been a 10-minute walk through the vil­lage of Ouchi-juku – a row of thatched huts and igloos – turned into a 30-minute trudge. It was so bad that Maya sug­gested an early lunch, and in a smoky hut we dried off by the open fire while slurp­ing down bowls of soba.

Slow Ski­ing was turn­ing out to be slower and harder than I had imag­ined. I was soon ready for din­ner and a soak in an onsen. At Ryokan Harataki, we slipped into our green cotton yukata robes and met in the din­ing room, where we feasted on ko­duyu, a dried­scal­lop stock with ginkgo and shi­itake, and grilled slices of mar­bled Aizu beef, washed down with sweet sake made from a highly pol­ished rice at lo­cal brew­ery Nagu­rayama. Af­ter, in the onsen packed with naked Ja­panese twen­tysome­things in white head tow­els, the snow swirled around us, mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble to see.

The next morn­ing, I dis­cov­ered the pool glit­ter­ing be­side a gush­ing wa­ter­fall, with tree branches and lanterns un­der a five-cen­time­trethick fluff of snow. I’ve steeped in more than 100 onsen, but this hum­ble one was top-five ma­te­rial.

Feel­ing re­stored, we set out for a hike around the rim of Lake Inawashiro, Ja­pan’s fourth largest, nick­named Heaven’s Mirror be­cause its sur­face re­flects Mount Bandai, an ac­tive vol­cano. There wasn’t much re­flec­tion dur­ing that blus­tery, over­cast morn­ing, but we en­coun­tered tun­dra swans and flocks of pin­tail ducks be­ing fed by bun­dled-up chil­dren. For­tu­nately, the sun poked through just as we be­gan our three-hour snow­shoe trek around a pine-scented ridge trail to Bisha­mon, one of five vol­canic lakes in­side BandaiAsahi Na­tional Park. While plung­ing through me­tre-high banks, I re­minded Maya how to make snow an­gels, and like kids at ski camp we let our­selves fall into the deep, down-like snow.

That night, Maya, Oyama-san and I shared a bub­bling ta­ble­side sukiyaki of beef, veg­eta­bles and tofu sim­mer­ing in a sweet soy broth at the Gran­deco Re­sort, lo­cated in­side the na­tional park. While tip­ping back some Hibiki spirit, Oyama-san – sober but loose enough to show vul­ner­a­bil­ity – talked about his di­vorce, and then Fukushima. “Aizu was be­trayed twice by Ja­pan. First, when the Meiji Restora­tion ended the samu­rai sys­tem. And then dur­ing the Fukushima nu­clear dis­as­ter.” Oyama-san was raised here and stayed, even af­ter many urged him to re­lo­cate fol­low­ing the earth­quake and tsunami. “But no­body has been harder on Fukushima than the neigh­bour­ing pre­fec­tures. They tell us we should change our name or move out, but the truth is we’ve had less ra­dioac­tiv­ity here in Aizu than in other pre­fec­tures closer to the plant. Still, be­cause we’re in Fukushima, our veg­eta­bles are banned from su­per­mar­kets and the tourists stopped com­ing.” Oyama-san’s words hit hard. The re­gion had been ghosted (which I’d been ap­pre­ci­at­ing as a crowd-eschew­ing Slow Skier), but the ra­di­a­tion in Aizu had never reached evac­u­a­tion thresh­olds. On March 15, 2011, it spiked to its high­est recorded level, roughly the same as the ra­di­a­tion emit­ted from an X-ray or CT scan, but to­day re­mains lower than in many parts of the world, in­clud­ing the av­er­age in NYC and Paris.

Day three was our power ski day. Blue­bird days are rare on Ja­panese piste, but a blue­bird hour or two on the un­crowded slope was all I re­ally needed. Maya and I did a first-tracks run down one of Gran­deco’s eight cour­ses. Un­like Switzer­land, Ja­pan doesn’t have a win­ter break when schools close and fam­i­lies ski, so on this Mon­day we had fresh cor­duroy slopes all to our­selves. No knuck­le­drag­gers, no chow­der; not even any an­noy­ing pop mu­sic blar­ing from Py­lon speak­ers. Maya and I had bonded ear­lier over our ag­ing Gen-X sta­tus, but af­ter film­ing each other’s fakies (ski­ing back­ward) and gar­lands (half-turns) we felt like high school­ers on a snow day. We de­bated stay­ing longer, only she got a call from Takako, our ski guide in the neigh­bour­ing re­sort Zao Onsen, who said con­di­tions there were amaz­ing. Since Zao in Ya­m­a­gata pre­fec­ture has more piste, we agreed to go even though it was a buzz-killing two-hour (112km) drive away.

Frankly, Zao Onsen town is dumpy, with out­dated lifts, ram­shackle base-sta­tion in­fra­struc­ture and a lack of lux­ury ho­tels. A lin­ger­ing smell of onsen sul­fur doesn’t help. But for my Slow Ski cri­te­ria, it was a score. Atop the Zao Rope­way are Zao’s in­fa­mous Snow Mon­sters – gi­ant white firs nat­u­rally sealed in ice and coated in a frost­ing of snow, like trees from a gin­ger­bread house. Il­lu­mi­nated at night, these eerie abom­inable snow­men creaked like boats and clinked like ici­cles. Next to them, a Jizo Bud­dha statue

stood buried un­der snow, only its red hood peek­ing out. There are Shinto torii gates at the base of the lifts and a few good-luck tem­ple bells. Much has been writ­ten about the Ja­panese aes­thetic wabi-sabi, loosely mean­ing “im­per­fect beauty”, but the con­cept of sabi it­self is un­der­rated. It means the el­e­gance of un­touched, ag­ing things, of which Zao has a sur­plus.

The ski­ing it­self was qual­ity, with 740 acres of ter­rain, 36 lifts and an 800m ver­ti­cal drop, plus in­ter­me­di­ate runs for ver­sa­tile skiers, blacks for bombers and plenty of blues for be­gin­ners. Maya and I ar­rived at lunchtime and spent the af­ter­noon with Takako, mak­ing sev­eral runs. Takako and I re­turned the next morn­ing for freshies and had the slopes to our­selves. “Free re­fills ev­ery night,” she said of the near-cer­tainty of nightly snow­fall.

In­spired by Basho, I wanted to delve deeper into snow coun­try’s spir­i­tual side. First was a climb up 1,000 snow-cov­ered steps to the rock-perched, ninth-cen­tury wooden Ris­shaku-ji tem­ple in Ya­madera. After­wards, we headed down a path to Mount Haguro, one of Ja­pan’s many sa­cred Shinto moun­tains and home to Goju-No-To, a 12th­cen­tury pagoda in a cedar for­est heavy with shrines and tem­ples.

The waist-deep snow slowed us enough to ap­pre­ci­ate Ji­jisugi, the 1,000-year-old Grand­fa­ther Cedar wrapped in shi­me­nawa rope (to ac­ti­vate its sa­cred­ness), and the wa­ter­fall shrine Sugan­o­taki. These holy woods are also home to the mys­ti­cal Yam­abushi, moun­tain her­mit monks in Mer­lin-like white robes car­ry­ing hor­a­gai, or conchshell trum­pets. They fol­low the Shugendo doc­trine, a mix of Shinto an­i­mism and Bud­dhism, and be­lieve that spir­i­tual en­light­en­ment comes from com­muning with na­ture over long pe­ri­ods of time, which yields mys­ti­cal pow­ers. “You don’t get this in Gs­taad,” I whis­pered to Maya as we slushed through the woods, prac­tis­ing the el­e­ments of for­est bathing and ad­mir­ing the ko­morebi, the unique Ja­panese ex­pres­sion for sun­light that dap­ples through trees.

That night we slept atop the moun­tain at the Saikan shukubo (a Shinto priest-run inn), in a mas­sive shrine buried un­der snow. Af­ter a tasty ve­gan sho­jin-ry­ori din­ner with woody soup stocks and pick­led moun­tain veg­eta­bles, I re­treated to my room, where I lis­tened to the snow-fat­tened winds roar across the sky. The snow­banks were so high they cov­ered the win­dows and I had to open a shoji screen to let the kerosene vapours es­cape. I felt all the harsh­ness and sad­ness of snow coun­try, its cen­turies of hard­ship and more re­cent grief from the 2011 tsunami. The Ja­panese have a word for this kind of deep, in­fi­nite pain – set­sunai – and I felt it swirling around Mount Haguro that night.

It fol­lowed me the next day as well. At an Aizu pot­tery stu­dio I stocked up on sake cups and was sur­prised when the pot­ter, nearly in tears, bowed deeply in grat­i­tude that I’d bought what other tourists had feared was made from tainted clay. While driv­ing around Fukushima City, Oyama-san pointed to black bags of ra­dioac­tive soil strewn across fal­low or­chards, say­ing, “Fukushima was once known for its peaches.” And in Mat­sushima, Maya ran into an old col­league who’d lost her en­tire fam­ily in the tsunami: a hus­band, two chil­dren and both par­ents. “Three gen­er­a­tions of her fam­ily com­pletely dis­ap­peared,” Maya said softly.

I re­mem­bered that soon I’d be de­scend­ing back into the world of speed and neon. I of­ten leave Ja­pan with more ques­tions than an­swers, but my guides on this visit were es­pe­cially good. In the car, Maya had pointed out sites like the saf­flower farm that in­spired Stu­dio Ghi­bli’s Only Yesterday, a 1991 anime favourite. Dur­ing meals, she en­cour­aged me to try new dishes: Over bowls of Ya­m­a­gata beef soba, she or­dered a bot­tle of amazake, a mock­tail made from fer­mented Koji rice said to pro­mote healthy skin, and at a sushi restau­rant, she en­cour­aged me to taste ankimo, a foie gras-like monk­fish liver. More im­por­tant, she be­came a friend. Ditto for my ski guide Takako, who vis­ited me in Zurich this past spring. Peo­ple ac­cuse the Ja­panese of be­ing aloof, yet I’m al­ways im­pressed by how in­ti­mate they can be­come in such a short pe­riod. The Ja­panese tea cer­e­mony phrase Ichigo Ichie best cap­tures this. Lit­er­ally, it trans­lates to “one time, one meet­ing”, and it con­veys a de­sire to slow down and savour each mo­ment, be­cause ev­ery en­counter in life oc­curs only once. If that isn’t a motto for Slow Ski­ing, I don’t know what is.

Hand­made soba at Sobadokoro Shinky­obo. Op­po­site, from left: Shinto priest­ess hosts at the Saikanshukubo; a pri­vate onsen at Gin­zan Hot Spring Fu­jiya Inn

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