Never A Bad Winter: Japan Edition
NEVER A BAD WINTER: JAPAN EDITION
[evo Crew member, Rachel Delacour, is taking the winter off from working and studying to do some skiing. Her first trip was to Tahoe to visit old friends and have some fun…Join us as we follow on her adventures this winter.]
By Rachel Delacour, Japan: Only after I had shuttled to the airport nearly three hours early, convinced the airline not to charge me for my overweight ski bag, been patted down thoroughly by a TSA employee and walked what seemed to be five miles to my international airline gate did it sink in; I am going skiing in Japan. I had been excitedly awaiting this trip for a little over six months, and it was finally here. I was only a half-a-daylong plane ride away from the promise land. To my surprise, the next twelve hours flew by in a haze of dry-airplane-cabin air. A nap, a book, and a questionable United Airlines cheese omelet later, we had arrived at the Tokyo/Narita airport.
The Hakuba Valley, which was to be my destination for the next two weeks, is nestled in the Japanese Alps in central Japan about a five-hour bus ride from Tokyo. We made our way on to the bus, storing hundreds of pounds of ski equipment in the luggage compartment. A few of us fought to stay awake until 9pm, in an attempt to adjust to Japan time. I shut my eyes and let the rumble of the bus quiet the butterflies in my stomach. “I am in Japan,” I kept thinking.
Several hours later we arrived at the Wadano Lodge, a quaint green building near the base of Happo-one, one of Hakuba’s popular ski resorts. Craig, an awesome British Columbia-turned-Hakuba local, owns the Wadano and neighboring Morino Lodge. The Wadano is run by a group of fun, charismatic Australians and Europeans who were all competitively icing one another with bottle after bottle of Smirnoff Ice (which is just as gross in Japan as it is in America).
I quickly came to realize that I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world with a group of incredibly unique individuals. evo’s Japan ski trip had brought together nineteen different people from all over the United States, each with their own reason for wanting to travel to Japan and ski. Among my favorites were a group of three close friends from Texas, who memorably skied with camelbacks filled with Malibu Rum and Steve, a 71-year-old certified badass who had just started skiing several years before.
We had hardly been in Hakuba for forty-eight hours when the temperatures abruptly dropped and a storm moved in. The forecast looked meek, maybe a few centimeters at night and a few more the following day. We were pleasantly surprised when the sky opened up and dumped on the valley all night. The following day, we headed to a resort near the northern end of the valley called Tsugaike Kogen, which boasts nearly a thirty-minute gondola ride and some of the most fun terrain in Hakuba. Later in the day, just as the sun began to shine through the steady falling snow, we found an entire zone of treed ridges that were completely unskied. What ensued were some of the best and deepest turns of my life.
Early in the week we made a reservation at a popular sushi restaurant in Hakuba called Kikyo-ya. I tried blowfish for the first time, which is a bit of an adrenaline rush because if cut improperly, the fish can be lethally poisonous. Luckily, I lived to spread the word – blowfish is pretty bland. I also braved horsemeat sashimi twice, which tasted more or less like raw steak. The octopus tempura was unbelievably tasty, as was the salmon nigiri. My favorite meal of the trip was a delicious traditional Japanese Nabe hot pot at the Morino Lodge, served at a long dinner table filled with friends.
Once the snow started it didn’t quit for several days. Each morning, we would wake to see fresh snow and it would usually continue to fall throughout the day. The turns got deeper and deeper as a storm slab formed, sending us looking for fun, resort-accessible skiing. Cortina, the resort furthest north in Hakuba often receives more snow than neighboring resorts and is one of the only areas where tree skiing is completely legal and encouraged. Cortina has only a few lifts that access a small valley of incredible tree skiing.
It was at Cortina that I had my first encounter with a kamoshika, which is best described as a Japanese bear-dog-goat. Kamoshika is also by far and away my favorite Japanese word. The short-legged, horned creatures roam around the mountains and don’t move quite fast enough to evade skiers. Long-time evo crew member Tom Moreno was lucky enough to make consecutive pow turns with the loping kamoshika.
When the storm cleared we went to see the sights, starting with the snow monkeys in Jigokudani, which translates “Hell’s Valley.” A small crowd of people gathered around a hot springs in a quiet snowy ravine. Little pink faces peered out from manes of brown fur, posing for the multitude of cameras. The snow monkeys scurried around our feet occasionally bumping into one another and screeching defensively. Most sat in the hot springs, grooming one another and staring back at us.
After making a few monkey friends, we made our way to the Shiga Kogen beer and sake brewery, where we explored the facilities and tasted a variety of plum wines and ales. Finally we arrived at Zenko-ji, the second most important Buddhist temple in Japan, just a short drive from Nagano Station. There were plenty of tourists in the maze of holy buildings and statues, but the majority of visitors were there to worship.
The following day, the first group of evoTrip guests headed back to Tokyo, hoping to fly back to the states. Having seen the promising forecast, I decided to stay in Hakuba for a few more days. Overnight, Tokyo received more snow than it had in ten years, and the mountains of central Japan got tons more. For the next two days, I skied with evo crew members Charlie and Sunny in some incredibly deep snow.
When the second group of evoTrip guests arrived, the sun came out for the first time in over a week, offering some spectacular views. Luckily, the temps stayed pretty low and there was still plenty of untouched snow all around the valley, making for some amazing bluebird turns.
A few days later I realized that it was my last night in Japan. The next day I was going to take the 7am bus to Shinjuku Station, followed by the Narita Express train to the airport, where I would depart for San Francisco several hours later. I felt about as content as one could feel leaving a place to which I knew I would immediately want to return. The bar had been set pretty high and I was getting used to not having to compete for deep powder turns. There was so much more I wanted to explore and ski in Hakuba, let alone the rest of Japan.
I hesitantly crammed my belongings into my ski and carry-on bag, remembering the baggage check attendant’s warning, “Try to get it under 50 pounds on your way home.” Yeah right. It was bittersweet. Bitter because I think I could permanently and comfortably relocate to Hakuba in a heartbeat. Sweet because a promising new storm cycle had just moved into Washington, and it looked as though I would time my arrival home perfectly.
My last night in Japan coincided with the birthdays of two guys who had been living at the Powder Lodge with my friend Charlie. We all decided to go out and celebrate, starting with a dimly-lit bar called Master Brasters. Interestingly enough, the bar had a convincing reggae theme going and the Jamaican bartender (dreads and all) spoke only Japanese; so began the game of charades to order the first round of drinks. What followed were several more drinks, laughter and later, some impressive acrobatics into a nearby snow bank. (Rachel wanted her Mom to know that the drinking age in Japan is 20 so it’s ok.)
The next morning I woke up late and said goodbye to Hakuba in a hurry, just barely making my bus on time. The whole Japan experience was astonishingly fun, epic and overwhelming at times. The only thing that allowed me to leave with a smile was knowing that I had skied some of the best snow of my life, but most importantly, that I will be back.