I returned from the land of the rising sun in May following what I considered to be an epic winter despite it being a relatively late one compared to what the people of Niseko on the island of Hokkaido are used to. I will now give you 5 reasons why anyone who loves to ride should save up the extra cash to go and experience what Japan has to offer.
I left for Niseko with the hope of experiencing snow like I have never seen before, indulging in new foods and absorbing a completely different culture and of these three the one that had me most excited was the snow. The excitement for my trip grew as I packed my newly purchased probe, shovel and transceiver anticipating to need to use the equipment in some of the deepest, toughest conditions I have ridden… in reality I was only partly right.
The first thing I noticed (other than it being less tasty than European snow) was how light it was. Before the mountain was open I ran to build fitness and one day for a new experience opted to go off piste through knee deep snow. Much to my surprise this was not the endurance event I was expecting as the white stuff was soo dry and light it was only marginally thicker than the air above it.
Apart from the lightness which has its obvious advantages for skiing as well as running and walking around resort, was the sheer abundance of it. As I have mentioned the snow was late finally arriving in small doses at the end of November with the weather gods turning on the tap on the 24th December, however when the tap was open there was no going back and it fell constantly for 13 days, the likes of which I have never seen before. When you look out of a window on a European winter morning and see a couple of fresh inches on the ground you are in for a good day up the hill… in Japan this occurs every other day at worst. If that isn’t enough you are treated to around 3 nightly dumps of over a foot every fortnight. To put this into perspective a good winter in Europe would be a max of 9m snowfall, in Niseko the average is 14m. What makes this even better is that due to the nature of the terrain available despite this quantity there was not a single avalanche until cracks finally began to appear when the sun finally came out towards the end of the season. Over the winter I rode my 115cm underfoot Line Influence from December through to March without them being out of place… in fact in March they had to bring in dump trucks to resort to remove the excess snow lying around. Standing at 6’2” I have only had a handful of face shots in my time however in the deeps of Japan it was almost a daily pleasure.
I know that Japanese cuisine on paper does not suit the pallet of every individual out there however I am sure that there is something to be found for everyone. I left the UK with impressions of eating raw fish, the dangerous fugu, fat noodles and random things I have never heard of. Some of these were obviously true as the sushi and sashimi was the best I have ever had despite loving noodles the udon and soba on offer are another level, it was however two other dishes that would appeal to the masses out there and work particularly well on the mountain.
The two dishes that I have missed the most since returning are okonomiyaki and ramen. Okonomiyaki, similar to a tortilla or omelette, is not only one of the best words around but it also provides you with a belly full of stodgy goodness after a hard day on the mountain. The savoury base and main ingredient of choice (plain, pork, shrimp or seafood) are enhanced with the sweet sauce on the top providing something to like for everyone. Ramen is a quite different dish and for me the perfect one for a ski trip. Comprising of an ocean of piping hot watery soup (normally miso, spicy or soy flavoured), mountain of noodles, a range of veg and the added option of pork slices it more than covers the warming of your cockles whilst fulfilling your thirst and nutritional needs.
There is probably not a Japanese word for ‘crowd’ as I didn’t see one of these outside of drunken Aussies on Australia Day, there may however be a character out there for ‘slightly long line’. Despite being some of the, if not the, best snow on the planet queues are seldom seen due to it not being a popular passed time with the natives. Apart from first tracks where you have the polite ‘German towel’ format building a queue of maybe 50 people at the main lifts; the longest line you will see on the mountain outside of the peak dates (Christmas and Chinese New Year) will be about 20 people. Even during the peak weeks the lines will only extend to around a 5 minute wait which for the quality of riding is nothing. A prime example of this was our day trip to Rusutsu, a resort 1 ½ hours from Niseko. We rode the resort all day long on one of the best powder days of the season and did not have one person in front of us for any lift the whole day long… this I have never seen before and am sadly unlikely ever to see again.
4) Accessible Terrain
When I left the UK for the relatively unknown world of Japanese skiing I did have some reservations the forefront of which was its size. I was used to skiing the vast 300km areas of the Alpes such as Espace Killy or Les Trois Vallées that you will struggle to cover in a whole winter let alone a week, so looking at the 47km that make up the 4 resorts of Niseko United total I was somewhat apprehensive.
On arrival in the baron resort I looked up at the mountain and the same thought resonated in my head, it was only a month later when the first lifts opened that my mind set started to change.
The third time I went out was with a returning seasonnaire even with barely enough snow on the ground to divert off the groomed runs we headed for the trees cutting through the bright green knee high bamboo shoots as if they were inflatable slalom poles. It was on these first runs that I realised Japan was not about sticking to the limited pisted runs but ploughing through the seemingly limitless terrain amidst the iconic white birch that would make the winter unique.
The ski patrol in Niseko are militant and if you find the slope side trees to limiting out of bounds is a strict no-no; however when the conditions are good enough, which is more often than not, you can access fantastic off piste skiing via the gate system on the perimeter of the patrolled area of the mountain. The 11 gates are situated on resort fence lines which provide direct access to or involve a short peak hike to the seemingly bottomless untouched pow without having to go hunting for it. Without a doubt this is the perfect place to learn to ride, hone your skills or let rip incredible powder.
The pride of the European après ski lies in bars such as La Folie Douce in Val d’Iesere, the Krazy Kanguruh in St. Anton and Le Pano Bar in Les 2 Alpes. These are all bars that allow you to prolong your day in the discomfort of your boots, smash back ice cold beers whilst dancing on the tables to the live music on show. Don’t get me wrong, this is a fantastic, if not the best, way to end your day on the mountain but your body does not thank you for it. As you may well know the Japanese are not the biggest of drinkers however their culture does provide an altogether different option in the form of an onsen.
An onsen is a hot spring that is turned into a bathing facility, some are outdoors and very natural whilst others are built into higher floors of hotels with the spring water transported up to them. Due to the fact you have to remove your clothes before entering an onsen these are usually single sex however if you are a couple you can reserve family or private areas in some or visit one of a few mixed ones. Either way once you are submerged in the warm water you can feel yourself completely relax and rejuvenate your muscles ready for the next day on the hill, a far cry from the party bars of the Alpes however equally unforgettable.
For a guide to the onsnes in and surrounding Niseko refer to this guide: http://niseko-grandpapa.com/hotsprings/