Go­ing off piste in the land of the fall­ing snow

Cat Weak­ley dis­cov­ers bow­ing at­ten­dants at ski lifts, fab­u­lous food and leg­endary pow­der in the Ja­panese win­ter

The Daily Telegraph - Travel - - FRONT PAGE -

There are so many things I didn’t know be­fore I skied in Ja­pan. Among oth­ers, that a taxi driver in Toyko will will­ingly jam a pair of 180 pow­der skis into his boxy sa­loon car, that KitKats come in flavours from straw­berry to wasabi via green tea, and that en suite bath­rooms are over­rated – give me com­mu­nal (though po­litely seg­re­gated) onsen hot-pool ablu­tions any time.

How­ever, the one thing I was aware of was Ja­pan’s rep­u­ta­tion for light pow­dery snow that falls reg­u­larly all win­ter, thanks to storms that will­ingly drop it as they sweep in over the moun­tains from the Sea of Ja­pan. It’s the is­land of Hok­kaido that most reg­u­larly fea­tures on ski and snow­board bucket lists – its big­gest re­sort of Niseko is famed for 49ft (15m) or more of snow­fall each year. But by opt­ing to ski on the main is­land, Hon­shu, my friends and I could more eas­ily add other wishes from our Ja­pan list to the two-week trip. City stopovers, travel by shinkansen bul­let trains with their beau­ti­ful swan­like heads, vis­its to an­cient tem­ples, the Jigoku­dani snow mon­key park…

The Hakuba and Myoko ski ar­eas are in the Nagano and Ni­igata pre­fec­tures re­spec­tively, both within easy train reach of Tokyo via the 1998 Win­ter Olympic city of Nagano. First stop, Myoko, and we are the only peo­ple on the slow con­nect­ing train from

Nagano to the small ac­cess town of Myoko Ko­gen with ski bags; at

5.30pm oth­ers look like they are go­ing home from work.

The jour­ney only takes an hour, but as we chug lethar­gi­cally on, the snow is fall­ing in­creas­ingly thickly, fu­elling our ex­cite­ment. Then, one stop be­fore Myoko Ko­gen, at the tiny sta­tion of Ku­rame, the train stops.

Even­tu­ally we fig­ure out that the train is done for the night. And when we see a deep pile of pow­der on the track ahead, we un­der­stand why. The few re­main­ing pas­sen­gers gather in a tiny wait­ing room, uni­formed of­fi­cials talk fast and ges­tic­u­late, a lo­cal jour­nal­ist turns up and asks if we’re an­noyed about the snow (No!). And fi­nally the news comes that free taxis are be­ing or­gan­ised, so we can com­plete our jour­neys – imag­ine!

It’s all part of a beau­ti­fully po­lite and help­ful cul­ture that also means we are wel­comed on to ev­ery ski lift, of­ten with a bow as well as a greet­ing, and why that taxi driver in Tokyo was so ac­com­mo­dat­ing with my skis. This driver piles our skis on top of his van, then bar­rels through the snow at hair-rais­ing speed to­wards our fi­nal stop, Akakura Onsen, one of the

Myoko area’s five ski hills.

Named after its high­est moun­tain Myoko-san, 2,454m, Myoko claims

62ft (19m) of snow an­nu­ally. And it’s all over the streets as we ar­rive, cov­er­ing cars, crunch­ing un­der­foot, swirling from the dark sky and mak­ing brightly lit signs look even more ex­otic in con­trast. Our eyes pop as the five of us wan­der the main street, de­cid­ing where to eat; there’s a lot of feast­ing to do. Ra­men noo­dle bowls, yak­i­tori bar­be­cue, sushi… the choice makes my mouth wa­ter ev­ery day, though smoked fish and pick­les along with eggs at the Akakura Ho­tel An­nex’s am­ple break­fast buf­fet is rather un­nerv­ing at first.

There are novel drinks to try, too: high­balls – Ja­panese whisky and soda with a fruit flavour of choice, in a pint glass or a stein; cold sake in place of wine with din­ner; sweet yet sharp plum wine as a di­ges­tif, or an aper­i­tif; and plenty of lo­cally brewed beer.

These be­come our tip­ples of choice – but not on our first night, when there’s Ja­panese pow­der to

The end­less black and white bark and fly­ing snow is mind-emp­ty­ingly mes­meris­ing

en­joy next morn­ing, on the linked slopes of Akakura Onsen and its neigh­bour Akakura Kanko.

Their ski area is not par­tic­u­larly chal­leng­ing, just a cou­ple of steep black runs, but who cares when our first for­ays in­volve slid­ing around dis­tinc­tive birch trees sur­rounded by bil­low­ing snow? Be­ing able to see through the trees makes route-find­ing eas­ier than through Alpine firs, and the end­less rep­e­ti­tion of white and black bark and fly­ing snow is min­demp­ty­ingly mes­meris­ing.

Signs on the slopes warn that go­ing out­side the area bound­ary is at your own risk, al­though hik­ing above the ropes is per­mit­ted with a guide, and posters in moun­tain restau­rants il­lus­trate the ter­ri­ble con­se­quences of dis­obey­ing. Yet the car­toon sto­ries are so charm­ingly ren­dered we can’t help but laugh. How bad it would be, they spec­u­late, to get stuck un­der a tree while ski­ing alone, only to be found months later by a weep­ing friend, as the tree blooms with life over­head.

Days later, in Hakuba, off-piste rules are sim­i­lar – we’re told lift passes will be con­fis­cated if we stray into for­bid­den ar­eas. It’s a big place, 10 ski ar­eas spread along a val­ley, linked by a lift pass and a shut­tle bus that runs into the night. We’re stay­ing in

MOUN­TAIN HIGHCat Weak­ley on the gon­dola in Tsug­aike; ex­otic KitKats, be­low

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