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July 15, 2012
July 1, 2012
American Way Staff
American AirlinesNexos Magazine Staff
Celebrated Living Staff
"Whooo! Hooo! Whoo!
Hoo-oo-gag-ack-gag." "Shut your mouth!" my mind
screams, as my lungs gasp for air. Too late - I'm already inhaling
mouthfuls of the snow billowing up from the ground. With nothing
before me but a calm sea of untouched powder, I race downhill.
Every turn leaves a deep trough in my wake as I silently plow
through the flakes, ducking under the low branches of silver birch
trees. The forest is open here, and the hill rolls gently between
steep sections. I let gravity take hold as I launch my skis off
buried stumps, flying high into the air and landing on an embracing
cushion of deep fluff. I yelp. I whoop. I spit out snow. I
smile. All around me, skiers and boarders emerge from the
woods. Caked in white, faces plastered with ear-to-ear grins, they
shuffle back to the gondola for another run. We exchange thumbs-up
and high fives, the international symbols of joy on a powder day.
Suddenly, the Japanese word I need pops into my head, and I yell it
out, pole raised in triumph: "Yuki!"
The other riders look at each other for a second before bursting
into laughter. The sight of a gaijin screaming the Japanese word
for snow must be hilarious. More fives and thumbs ensue. Soon,
everyone is yelling "Yuki!" while sumo-size flakes cascade from the
Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, lies just off the main
island, Honshú, though it might as well be a world apart. Take off
from the endless metropolis of Tokyo, and in less than two hours,
you glide in for a landing over white forests. Space, a costly
premium throughout Japan, is abundant in Hokkaido, a mostly wild
territory the size of Austria that is full of mountains, rugged
coastlines, volcanoes, and forests. The population density is fewer
than 70 people per square kilometer, so there's more than enough
room to stretch out.
And then there's the snow.
Hemmed in by the Pacific, the Sea of Japan, and the Sea of Okhotsk,
Hokkaido is in the path of every type of winter weather pattern
imaginable. Cold air sweeping down from Russia loads up on ocean
moisture, reaches the island, and unleashes more than 15 feet of
snowfall annually. In the mountains, the snow dumps in relentless
waves, hiding the sun for weeks at a time. Because winter is so
cold, the flakes that fall are dry and light - perfect for skiing.
Hokkaido's residents have known the sport for nearly a century,
thanks to an Austrian army officer named Theodor van Lerch, who
taught skiing here in 1911. Small hills and resorts jut out from
the main city, Sapporo, site of the 1972 Winter Olympics, which was
the event that transformed the enjoyable regional pastime of skiing
into full-fledged national mania in Japan.
"In the 70-meter ski jump, Japan won all three medals," recalls
Osamu "the Green Lantern" Yamazaki, Japan's first Olympic mogul
skier. "It was the beginning of the boom. From that day on, every
[parent] put their kids into a ski program. … When I was young,
almost everybody skied. You got back from school, you went skiing.
You even walked the dog on skis. In Hokkaido, skiing plus snow
Over the years, Yamazaki's adopted hometown of Niseko has been the
secret spot for Hokkaido's dedicated skiers. Just two hours
southwest of Sapporo by train or car, and framed by the imposing
face of the majestic Mount Yotei volcano, Niseko is Hokkaido's
answer to Steamboat, Colorado, a haven for deep powder and great
tree skiing. With an expanding crew of international ski bums
flocking into town, Niseko, and its snow, is growing in legendary
AS THE BUS CLIMBS mountain passes on its way from the New Chitose
Airport, outside Sapporo, the snowbanks rise along with it. What
started out as a one-foot bank has quickly grown to two, and then
three, then five feet, until it towers past the height of the bus,
and the highway resembles a bobsled track. Flashing LED lights
suspended above the road keep vehicles on track, but the rush of
flakes is the only sight visible in the headlights. "You ever seen
so much snow, mate?" asks a clearly intimidated Australian in the
seat next to mine. I can't say I have, and I'm from Canada. As we
pull into the main parking lot at Niseko Grand Hirafu Resort, the
largest of the resorts that make up Niseko, I get a sense of just
how much snow I'm seeing. Cars are indistinguishable white mounds.
The only houses that aren't totally buried are the ones with
full-size construction loaders parked out front. The snowbanks by
the sidewalks are easily two stories tall.
Spilling down half of a dormant volcano's slope, Niseko is actually
four separate ski resorts that are linked together by lifts.
Hirafu, geared mostly toward foreign tourists, offers a wide
variety of terrain, including spacious sidewalk-smooth groomers
and acres of pristine forested powder stashes. I'm joined by Steve
Ogle, an outdoor photographer from British Columbia, and his friend
Mark "Parm" Parminter, and we're following the advice of Ian
MacKenzie, the Scottish owner of Niseko Powder Connection, the tour
company that arranged our trip. We cut to the left of the Hirafu
gondola on our first run and dash around the trees in Miharashi, a
vast area of mellow lines and untracked turns in wide-open birch
forests. I remark how the bushes look almost like trees. "That's
because they are trees," says Ogle. "We're just skiing around the
treetops. The rest is below." A chorus of "Sweet!" parts from our
lips, and we make our way over to Niseko Higashi-yama, the next
resort on the volcano.
Anchored by the giant Niseko Higashiyama Prince Hotel, which
resembles a futuristic moon base rather than a rustic ski lodge,
Higashiyama has few crowds on this stormy day, and we're free to
play amid the steeps near the bottom. Ogle snaps frames as Parm
airs 360s off jumps into endless soft landings. I'm content to
thrash in the shin-deep snow, having not skied powder like this in
Breaking for lunch at a small restaurant, buried and identifiable
only by the flags poking up from the snowbanks, we're treated to
our first taste of Japanese ski-hill cuisine, and we find that
Japan's obsession with quality food remains, thankfully, intact.
Deicing our bodies, we help ourselves to steaming mugs of green tea
and dig into hearty seafood ramen soups. Fresh clams, prawns, and
mountain mushrooms soak in a fragrant miso broth. "This is how it
should be done," I say. Ogle and Parm nod in agreement as we bow
profusely, utter many arigatos, and then head back into the
DESPITE THE GREAT SNOW, Japan's ski industry is in a nosedive.
While the country couldn't open enough resorts during the economic
boom of the 1980s, the past 15 years of recession (which has just
ended) took a substantial toll. Add in an aging population that is
less drawn to adventure sports, and you have a drop in ski visits.
"Most resorts in Japan are losing money because of demographics,"
says Keith Rogers, Yamazaki's roommate. "Lots will tank because
they just aren't economical." A Canadian who has lived in Japan for
a decade, Rogers now sells real estate in Niseko, though mainly to
Australians and expats living in Asia. It's the arrival of
foreigners like Rogers, MacKenzie, and their clients that has
saved Niseko from being mothballed.
Australians and New Zealanders make up the bulk of gaijin skiers
and snowboarders in Niseko, so much so that English is widely
spoken, but there are plenty of tour companies promoting the resort
worldwide. A cheap yen and the unique cultural experience help to
sell this place, but it's the powder that draws people in the end.
Two years ago, an Australian friend sent me a photo of herself
skiing in chest-deep snow amid Niseko's trees. I was hooked, and I
started planning my visit. Every person who travels here returns
with tales of the fluffiest, lightest, most abundant snow they've
ever skied. It's a powder hound's frosted dream.
By our third day, the sun has emerged and the temperature is up.
Mount Yotei's snow-dipped cone is visible from every turn on the
hill. Snowy mushrooms high in trees grow heavy, cracking limbs
under their weight and crashing to the ground in noisy explosions.
On one run, I hear a crack, turn my head, and get blasted by a wave
of snow from one of these tree bombs. The next day grows cold, and
everything ices over, making for some rough riding. Lunch drags on,
and skiing doesn't seem so appealing. Leading, as always, Yamazaki
turns to the group and says, "Okay. Onsen time." Heads nod more
than willingly at the Green Lantern's decisive call.
Japanese après ski is all about the onsen, natural volcanic hot
springs where one soaks one's weary bones. The onsen routine is
straightforward: Purchase a towel, ticket, and Asahi beer from the
vending machine. Separate the sexes. Strip off all clothing and
jewelry, sit on stool, and wash the body thoroughly with soap,
shampoo, and hot water. Place the tiny modesty towel over, um,
one's modest bits, and enter a steaming outdoor pool. Sit on a
rock, crack open the beer, and allow muscles to relax in the crisp
mountain air. When satisfied, get dressed, find the nearest bed,
and nap like a dog.
Serious hunger tends to follow a day filled with skiing and
soaking, so Niseko serves up its fair share of Japanese delicacies.
Small restaurants, ranging from expensive sushi places to smoky
barbecue dives and lively izakaya (casual bars), sooth growling
bellies. Whether savoring a crisp dish of prawn tempura, glistening
raw tuna belly, or grilled chunks of Australian lamb, you'll find
that everything is fresh - and reasonably priced for a ski
For the truly budget-conscious, a few hundred yen (less than $10)
can get you a fully prepared meal of fish, rice, tuna triangles,
and a drink at the Seiko Mart, Hokkaido's answer to 7-Eleven. By
far the most happening place in the village, Seiko's aisles are
usually packed with riders defrosting after a few hours of night
skiing. In fact, so much of Niseko Hirafu's terrain is lit up like
Yankee Stadium after sunset that you could be slicing fresh turns
under a full moon until nine p.m.
By the fifth night, we are growing restless. The skiing has been
great, but the deep, epic turns we came for have yet to arrive.
Someone suggests we drink until it snows. Nodding to the United
Nations of ski bums spread around his chalet, Yamazaki raises a
hearty mug of sake above his head and declares, "Yuki!" Passing the
mug, each skier raises it to the air, takes a slug, and repeats,
"Yuki." Magically, fat flakes begin descending within the hour, and
excited legs hurry off to beds.
Standing atop a pitch in the Miharashi forest the next morning, my
skis point toward a freshly made bed of white snowy linen.
According to the resort, just over a foot has fallen, but here in
the trees, there is always more - more than two feet in spots where
the wind generously deposited the flakes. Yamazaki pushes off
first, his compact frame in the bright green jacket disappearing
quickly in a trail of swirling flakes floating in his wake. We all
quickly dash off after him, muffled whump-whumps of turns the only
sound besides yelps of pleasure. The snow's surface caresses my
shins, then knees, and finally my waist, as each turn bobs my body
in and out of an airy powder bath. Snow sprays over my head, into
my mouth, and I laugh out loud. Moving is light and effortless …
perfect powder skiing.