Are you going to ski Mt. Fuji?" "They have mountains in Japan?" "It snows in Japan?"
To the uninitiated, these seem like perfectly reasonable questions. To a person addicted to skiing, they sound ridiculous. The reality: There are lots of mountains in Japan, they are enormous and it snows like crazy. Here in the Northwest, we think of a 400-inch ski season as epic. In Japan, the ski resorts average 800 inches of snow in a season. With that fact in mind, my ski partner and I boarded the plane bound for Tokyo.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunately going to be allowed to land in Tokyo, so we will be beginning our descent shortly," came the announcement from the cockpit last season. Having been on the plane for most of the day, and having traveled halfway across the planet, we were unaware that an almost unheard-of snowstorm had descended on the city of Tokyo. That we were being allowed to land was a lucky break, as we have no idea what would have happened had we not been allowed to land.
What we found when we left the confines of the plane was nothing short of a refugee camp. People in government-issued sleeping bags covered every available bit of floor space. Not knowing how we would ever be able to get out of the madness of Narita Airport, we sought refuge in any of the almost limitless dining and bar options, only to find that they were sold out of everything. Nothing had been in or out of the airport in almost three days. We finally found relief in what would become the first of many beers purchased from the ubiquitous Japanese vending machines.
Our group of a dozen travelers signed up for our trip through the Seattle-based outdoor adventure retailer Evo, founded by former pro skier Bryce Phillips. While the standard trip is one week long, my ski partner and I would be staying for two weeks and meeting travelers from two different tours. Once we had all gotten together at the airport, we began to discuss our options for how to get to Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics and our eventual destination. Bryce disappeared, only to reappear a few minutes later and tell us all to be ready to move.
Before long, we were moving quickly through the thick crowd, dragging 100 pounds of ski gear each. We wove through weary travelers, military officers shouting through bullhorns, and suit-wearing Japanese businessmen, then miraculously pressed our way onto a crowded train. After several hours of stop-and-go travel caused by the nearly 3 feet of snow which had blanketed the Tokyo area, another train ride and finally a van trip, we arrived at Morino Lodge where we were greeted by Craig, the owner/operator. Weary from the long day, we went to sleep with dreams of deep powder filling our heads.
In the morning we were given the option to stay with the loosely guided group, or strike out on our own to any of the six nearby ski resorts. As this was our first day, we chose to follow the group to Cortina, the northernmost of the areas, known for its deep, deep snow. Before we loaded onto the chair with the horde of other hungry powder slayers, Bryce clearly pointed out that the ski day itself is not guided, and explained the plan to regroup and get back to Morino Lodge at the end of the ski day. We rode up, stoke meters at 11, in the chair behind Bryce. When he speedily skated away after unloading, we wisely chose the role of rabbits and chased him down as he boarded the next lift. For the rest of the day, we managed to track Bryce through the unique pines typical in Japan and were rewarded with fantastic powder turns that made us wonder what Utah means when it claims to have the "Greatest Snow on Earth."
Returning to the lodge that afternoon, we exchanged stories with smiling faces and raised a toast to the first person to have spotted a kamoshika, the local deer/bear/pig cross that post-holes through the deep snow in search of food. After a vending machine brew or two and a quick rinse, we headed out as a group for a dinner of izakaya, the Japanese version of small-plate dining. The format of the Evo trip is such that there is always a group option for dinner, but joining is never required. These group meals, while organized by the lodge and Evo, are not included in the trip price.
After a couple of days following the group and getting the lay of the land, Bryce took my ski partner and I aside, perhaps noticing our gear set up for backcountry skiing, and asked if we would like to take a ski tour with himself and Craig, who in addition to owning the lodge, also is a local terrain expert. Like kids in a candy store, we tried to contain our excitement when we replied, "Sure." What ensued will go down as one of the greatest ski days of my life.
We began by skinning up from the top chair at Tsugaike, one of the local ski areas. When we arrived at the ridge from which we would descend, we chatted it up with some other local ski guides who were out touring on a day off, and wondered how we got so lucky. After a long and steep couloir run, we regrouped to begin the next hike over the top of yet another ski area. The hike up was the most beautiful we had ever experienced, and made us completely forget that we were dragging ourselves up a mountain in a land so far from home. Standing atop the ridge and staring into the great unknown, Craig told us to drop in first and shred to our hearts' content.
The run down was unlike any we had ever skied before. The terrain was so steep we had to wonder how the trees, unlike any we knew, could be growing there. The snow was so deep and light that we would only pop out of the white room long enough to avoid slamming into the next tree. When we finally called it a day, Craig took us out to eat in a small village restaurant, where we would have stood no chance of being able to get by without his good grasp of the Japanese language. Over delicious tempura and bowls of steaming ramen, we recounted what may just have been the best ski day of our lives.
Over the next 10 or so days, we became more familiar with the region. We rode buses to the different ski areas, walked to local shops and restaurants, made friends among the fellow tour travelers and enjoyed vending-machine beers on a daily basis.
Overall, the ski experience in Japan is one of the greatest things a skier can ever experience. The skiing is top-notch, with a wide variety of slopes and conditions to choose from. The people are extremely friendly and willing to help out tourists despite the language barrier. Delicious food is everywhere, even at the ski areas. The infrastructure, at least in the Nagano area, is such that you can ride free public transportation to any of the many mountains. Surprisingly, once you've paid for the trip over, most things, including the skiing, are quite inexpensive.
In short, as a friend of mine who preceded me there told me, "It's Shangri-La for skiers. Once you've been, all you'll think about is how soon you can go back." ♦