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
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