BD athlete Zack Giffin reports on an epic ski trip to Japan
Black Diamond athlete Zack Giffin recently traveled to Japan to sample some of the country’s legendary powder. Below is his report and photos from the trip.
The Riding Gaijin
The idea of traveling to Japan for skiing was first brought up in conversation in Argentina. At that time I was doing everything I could to keep my expenses to a minimum. The thought of traveling to Japan (one of the more expensive places possible) was not something I could see happening any time soon. But I never vocalized my doubts and before I knew it the plan had been made. Months went by and still I waited for signs of the plan falling apart and the inevitable that would keep our trip from happening. The weird thing was, we never ran into a major problem and before I knew it I was on a plane heading to Japan.
For many reasons, all good ones, I wound up on a separate plane from the rest of the group. Being one to not shy away from a good adventure, I arranged to meet the group in Myoko; a town about four hours of train rides away from Tokyo. What was to be an easy couple of transfers with plenty of time to spare, turned into a day of travel on trains that kept stopping to clear the tracks of snow. Finally I reached Myoko. I grabbed my luggage and prepared to step off the train. The doors closed and I could hear the faint noise of the breaks release as the train began its trek to the next cold foreign town. Frantic, I used all my strength to pry the doors open, as I imagine myself being taken away to the unknown. Thankfully, someone on the outside saw my struggle and got the attention of the train master. The breaks were again set, the doors opened, and I was allowed to finish my travels and settle into a cozy Japanese style hotel—waking to fish, tea, mushroom salad and a meter of snow that had fallen overnight!
Apparently that kind of snow doesn’t fall every day in Japan. But I wouldn’t be able to attest to that because nearly every night we were measuring the new snow by the foot—not by the inch. The Japanese, however, mostly measure the snow in centimeters and for the purpose of not scaring away their potential Japanese clients, laughably under report the new snow. The second day’s 10 centimeters turned into about two feet. The third day they reported 15 and we were somehow neck deep. However the official reporting, the reality was huge snow by the end of our week in Myoko. Pillow lines became slopes, trees became pillows, roads became trails, and the mountain transformed itself as more than 10 feet fell during the time we were there—all with virtually no competition for lines.
At the end of the day “onsen” was the only word any of us cared to hear. Onsen means “hot springs,” and other than a good meal and a warm body to stay the night with, it’s the best way I know to improve on a stellar powder day. In Japan, hot springs aren’t just for the monkeys, they are for everyone and virtually every hotel in Myoko has one. It was said to me that if you dig about 100 meters into the ground nearly anywhere in Japan hot water comes up! I’m not sure if it is entirely true, but it is true that hot springs have been a part of Japanese culture for a long time and they feel really good after skiing in a blizzard all day. It was not long before onsens became part of my morning ritual as well. Equipped with a Kimono-style robe and special onsen slippers, I’d make my way to the hot springs, stopping by the dining room on the way back to see how adventurous I wanted to get at breakfast. Raw egg on rice with sweet octopus? Or fish, Miso and fermented spiderweb beans?
After eight days of pillow smashing, barrier hucking, and literally digging ourselves out of the snow, the sun came out. Our time in Myoko was up. One day of travel brought us to the headquarters of the Japanese alps: Hakuba, a Mecca for Australians on holiday and home to by far the largest alpine mountains I’ve seen in Japan. As you take the series of lifts up Hakuba’s highest mountain, Happoone, the beach and birch trees turn into brush as the typical Japanese forest scenery falls away revealing what seemed to be a portal to Alaska. Long lines off large fluted peaks absolutely buried in a deep maritime snowpack. It looked like the best line of your life off of every peak on every aspect. A certain amount of remoteness combined with deep valleys, super steep sidewalls and absolute avalanche exposure in every direction contradict the inviting aesthetics of the lines.
Seeing all the new snow the past week we were understandably wary of slides. On our first sunny day the snow seemed surprisingly stable and consolidated. We skied some good long runs that day and made plans to push out early the next morning. As it so often happens, the opportunities only present themselves for a short time and by the next day the storms had returned and our window to the Japanese alpine was closed. Satisfied with my two long runs I skied the next few days down in the forests enjoying the open tree lines we all know from the movies. The powder was terrific the rest of our trip, but my mind kept wondering back to those few sunny moments; high out the gate at Happoone, when the true possibilities in Japan were revealed to me. My last question about Japan’s legitimacy as one of the best places on earth to ski had been answered. Japan is not only about fun, happy pillow hopping, Snow Monkeys, and Ramen. There is world-class big mountain skiing and that means Japan has everything a skier wants, with more snow, less people and better food.