Powder Heaven: 3 weeks of unforgettable snow, snow, and snow again
To give you a flavor of our joint travels so far (and let us celebrate great memories), we thought to bring a short recap of our 3-week travel to Japan a.k.a. Powder Heaven.
- 3 skiing areas: Niseko (Hokkaido Peninsula), Minami-Uomura (Niigata Prefecture), Myoko-Kogen (Niigata Prefecture)
- Two lost skis,one each
- Some sightseeing in Tokyo in the end for 3 days
We had been told great things about Japan – thanks to our alpine hero Matthias who was the ultimate catalyst – and its incredibly fluffy, daily fresh snow but being first and foremost used to the conditions in the Northern Alps, it is still quite hard to image perfect conditions days and days on end. You have to go there to
The first time you start thinking that there must really be lots of snow is when the bus takes you from Sapporo airport to the small ski resort of Niseko village and passes through what feels like a gorge with walls of snow 3-4m high.
The second time you reckon that something is different is when you hop on the lift (or rather gondola – Japan loves tiny 4 people gondolas) and the guy next to you carries skis that look like two snowboards.
The third time you are almost certain that Japan is different: you have lost the tracks of where you went down from the life drop-off although you have ploughed through the snow just 15 minutes ago.
Instead of boring you with any further details – again: you need to go and experience it yourselves – here are a few impressions of the 3 areas – we definitely preferred the very versatile Myoko-Kogen area: everything from great tree-skiing over gullies to ski-touring the neighboring volcanos:
Niseko: Highlights are gates 1, 2, 8, 11 – really nice also after several runs
Minami-Uomura: Highlights are some interesting tree-runs between the slopes (forbidden but you may chance it), lift areas on the medium-steep slopes facing the Ishiuchi side of the mountain – and renting a snowboard for a day J
Myoko-Kogen: Highlights are climbing Mount Myoko with skis on a clear day (thus, we did it two days in a row), Tangram tree-runs, tunnel run on the western edge of the resort on Maruyama side
Japan is not really made for 21st century skiing. Lifts built for the Olympic winter games in 198x are still the same – and very literally so. I, Anna, have never ridden on a single-seat wooden plan lift before. And taking 4 of those 100m lifts in a row isn’t anything one would easily find in Europe either. But it gets you where you want to be: the top of a snow-covered volcanic mountain between 900 and 1,500m high which will offer enough freeride options as you go down in limited visibility (no, the snow does not stop to fall during daytime).
Japan’s bus infrastructure is not made for skiing either. Our transport from the Niseko Grand Hotel to the Anapuri Ski Area was performed in a standard travel coach with plush seats which transformed entering and exiting wearing ski boots and carrying skis and poles in hand a daily challenge.
Are Japanese themselves into skiing? We rather got the impression that slopes where occasionally crowded by English-speaking crowds (Australians/New Zealanders, some Americans), a few Germans, and some Asians from Hongkong, Taiwan, and Singapore.
In terms of other interesting situations, we have probably had quite a standard Japanese experience – thanks again to Philipp who provided us with a very helpful guidebook on “how Japan works”. Still, we share a couple of personal anecdotes:
There are a couple of common notions about how Japanese people are. We can definitely confirm the following:
- It is hard to convince people to deviate from their instructions: It took is 10 minutes to persuade our bus driver to make an extra stop (not even a detour) on our last day to be able to reach the train station more easily with the luggage. Finally, he grudgingly agreed and we keep wondering until this day what he told his wife in the evening when coming home from work: “This was the worst day ever because I deviated from my plan”, or “I helped two tourists today who were spared to walk an extra mile with heavy luggage”.
- The queue is the queue is the queue: the queue is an ever-present phenomenon in Japan: in train stations, in front of elevators, at the ticket office hours before the office opens – and in the latter case the number of tickets you can purchase is limited to… the number of persons you are in the queue! It’s the Japanese way to ensure egalitarianism.
We don’t need to tell you that Japanese food is great – we loved it! Among our best moments:
- visiting a small restaurant (the only one in town) in Ishiuchi with no English menu but extremely friendly hosts that had some sushi and regional appetizers
- Making new friends at a small diner whom we tried our Google Translate skills with which – despite occasional quizzical looks – led to a lunch and Asahi beer date at one of the cafes on the mountain the next day
- Going to a Ramen place in Sapporo and eating a good bowl of broth and ramen after queueing outside for 30 minutes
- Visiting the high-end sushi bar of Jiro Ono’s son in Tokyo and experiencing a course of 16 pieces of sushi over 1.5 hours with only 6 other guests
Given our hunger for skiing we limited the time in cities. One typical Japanese activity that we could already enjoy during the skiing trips was the daily visit to the Onsen, the hot springs. Its relaxing heat is responsible for many days with “zonk-out-syndrome” when we tried to read a book at 9:00 pm only to wake up with lights on, windows still opened (from the “5-minute-airing”) at 3:30 in the night, and books on our chests – it gets to you J Apart from Onsen, what we liked in particular was:
- Tsukiji fish market: it’s a classic and still it’s impressive to watch the 05:00 am Tuna auctioning at Tsukiji. Luckily we had a great guide who has been working at the market in a family-owned business for 20 years, knowing all the tricks of the trade
- Traditional Japanese Kabuki theater – we were courageous and booked two subsequent sessions which were highly entertaining (also thanks to a translator tablet)
- Asakusa district in Tokyo: great old part of the city and with our 80+ year-old retiree the tour got more authentic including the guidance on how to pray at a Buddhist temple and how to pray at a Shinto shrine. The essence was: for a little luck give a little money, for more luck, give more money J Highlight of this tour was a participation in a classical Japanese dance class where we tried among other things to use a fan to imitate the fall of sakura