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Me getting a face full of silky Nozawa Onsen pow!
I was VERY lucky to be invited on a 3 week trip to Nagano, Japan in January 2012 by my good friend and super talented photographer Camilla Stoddart. She had been commissioned by the Nagano Tourism Council to collect footage across the 4 ski resorts of Hakuba, Shiga Kogen, Nozawa Onsen and Myoko to be used for advertising and promotion primarily to the Australian and English market. Lucky for me I was picked out of the bunch to be a “ski model” (hehe) and also blogger supplying stories to the website Ski Club Great Britain and NZskier.com. Following the trip I have written articles for NZskier Magazine ( NZ) and Fall Line Magazine (UK).
Alongside the image taking by Camilla Stoddart and my blogging we also bought a long the particulary clever Jase Hancox to create this amazing footage selling the Classic Resorts Nagano product and shadowing the awesome adventure we had! Below is the full half hour video of our amazing snowy adventure!
The first in a series of 4 blog posts from Japan for Ski Club Great Britain
Stepping off the plane in Tokyo after a comfortable 10 hour skip north from NZ is like shutting your eyes on earth and opening them again only to see Mars. Our mixed group of Japan veterans and virgins left a balmy dry kiwi summer to embark on a shared adventure for what we were sure was to be everything but what we expected. That was a very good assumption to start with.Ninja Bar – Asakusa, Tokyo
Japan can conjure fear in many travellers with the threat of the language barrier, size of population, scary cuisine and earthquakes. I can safely say from my hotel room in magical Hakuba that all those worries are unfounded. In fact it’s true. I have fallen a little in love.
We skipped through customs at Narita airport with ease, made a beeline (with the help of a lot of English signage!) to the bag drop desk that would whisk our main luggage and skis on to Hakuba where we would meet it the next day. The no fuss process and now light over night bags had us more than frothing to step out into the mammoth giant that is Tokyo (a mere 36.8 million people as a movie kindly informed us on the plane).
But movies, stats and other peoples stories can never quite inject you with the wonder and slightly weird edge that you feel looking out the window at a place so modern but so different from home. We spent the evening training our taste buds with exotic Japanese food at the aptly named “Ninja Bar” topped off with hot sake to hammer out our jet lag. With half a day before our Shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagano we tested our navigation skills with the Tokyo train system and found that the looping Yamanote Line was super tourist friendly, lots of English signage and easy to understand pictures! With all senses firing we absorbed ourselves fully in the Tokyo madness of people, fashion, traffic and general craziness. We had arrived in the beating heart of Japan and it was loud!
Hotel at base of Cortina Ski Area, Hakuba, Nagano
With the dreams of dry Japanese powder wafting through our minds we boarded our Shinkansen (bullet train) for Nagano and sliced through the Tokyo outer suburbs and towns watching the shadowy tree clad mountains draw closer by the second. With a quick transfer from train to shuttle we were then on our way to Hakuba in the drawing darkness of late afternoon.
Now this is when the story really starts. The Hakuba valley is host to 10 ski areas within 30 minutes of each other, with small town centres surrounded by farmland and scattered around the base areas of the resorts. Unlike the somewhat rolling slopes of Niseko up north, Hakuba hugs high tree clad mountains and the bare rugged tops of the Japanese Alps. Majestic was the word that constantly sprung to mind.
Our first day was probably typical. We set off on a short 25 minute shuttle ride from our fantastic Hakuba Tokyu Hotelenroute to Hakuba Cortina ski area. With no doubt in my mind I can honestly say that place plays host to one of the most impressive and unusual hotels I have ever seen!
Two lifts up and we scarcely skied 200 metres of piste before tearing blindly into the trees, a bit of a big ask for the first day of skiing, but the promise of pow had as acting on impulse. Powder has been explained and described to death and everyone has their favourite spots. For me it’s Japan all the way. And at that moment, Hakuba owned every snowy fibre in my body.
Me giving it a go!
We all were spat out of the trees back onto the piste at the bottom, some a little whiter than when they went in, screaming thighs and heaving lungs and all with a crazed glint in their eye that meant this trip had only just begun. Set up with the frothy, icing sugar light pow we spent the rest of the day adventuring some amazing open tree runs with exciting undulating terrain, pillows and ridges to play on.
Our dreams had been verified for the first time and the only way to top it off was to suck it up and head for the much talked about onsen in the hotel.
Yes you do get naked. Completely starkers with not only your friends (separate male and female!) but any other visitors who might be around. It’s strange and you begin by scrambling to cover all your “important” bits with the tiny “modesty” towel that you are allowed to take in. But let me tell you, and I speak as a somewhat prude and round kiwi girl, once you get in amongst the steam, sink into the magically silky hot water and take in the snowy slopes that you have shredded all day, you will quickly fall in love with the whole process. Since our first we have had no less than one onsen a day and have grown to relish the ritualistic relaxation of the whole process. Getting nude with my buddies is just a non-event now!
Backcountry accessed from the top of Happo One Ski Area, Hakuba
The magic of Hakuba continued for another two days with the sun coming out and giving us the rare opportunity to take in the winter views of the whole valley. Happo One put on her best for us and we decided to take on the shining white summit and back bowls with Canadian guide Dave from Evergreen Outdoor Centre. We were presented with alpine terrain and views that are perhaps a secret to many visiting Japan but this was what back country skiers dreams are made of.
Our time here didn’t aid our waistlines in the fact that the food has been totally and utterly delicious. Chicken Katsu with pickle and miso soup, soba noodles and tempura, “self cook” Okonomiyaki and fish taco’s at a western style pub. There is something for everyone and the most valuable lesson learnt is that it the scarier it looks, generally the yummier it is!
The reality of ski trips is that as much as that brain wants to ski at every opportunity, the body will most likely go on strike and a little R & R is called for. We sort this in the form of a visit to the ski jumps that were host to the Nagano Olympics in 1998, eating in amazing local café’s and restaurants and a 45 minute drive into the hills to visit a luxurious riverside onsen which blew our minds with it’s beauty and serenity.
Throw in some local wildlife spotting with the crazy looking deer/goat combo of the Kamoshika and fuzz-ball snow monkeys hanging from trees, it begun to transform into the exotic snowy adventure we had hoped for.
I think the three days spent in Hakuba have left us feeling totally overwhelmed. To an extent we all expect to meet that legendary pow, and that we did. But the beauty of the mountains, the charm and easily accessible culture of the township and the utterly incredible hospitality of the people completely blew us away.
Next stop Shiga Kogen! Stay posted…
The powder adventure continues in Shiga Kogen
After three days of exploring Hakuba, our crew were feeling acclimatized to the immense and fascinating Japanese culture and ready to venture further into the wintry reaches of Nagano. A bus and train transfer got us to Yamanouchi town which sits in a wide river valley 30 minutes from Nagano and at the base of the mountain that played host to our next ski destination, Shiga Kogen. With only a portion of our day used for travel we decided to take advantage of the clear weather and soak in some of the local sights.
First up was a compulsory visit to the much talked about Jigokudani snow monkey park. The snow monkey’s reputation well and truly preceded them with “interesting” portraits scattered through local information, advice on NOT to stare them directly in the eye and the story of their invasion of the onsen pools. None of this prepared us for the completely bizarre scene of the little grey creatures leisurely bathing in hot water, hanging their hands over the edge to cool off and taking turns having a good old scrub! Incredibly human in their mannerisms and so blasé about the camera lenses and crowds peering at them during their bath time, I understand now why they are one of the top attractions of the Nagano prefecture!
At the base of the snow monkey access trail was the Kanbayashi Hotel Senjukaku. This was most definitely not in our accommodation budget (which is a damn shame) but the offer to check out a traditional geisha performance was sent our way and we were more than willing to step inside the luxurious Japanese style building. The geisha was exquisite and we were all mesmerised as she took us through songs and dances with her soft lilting voice and traditional instruments. Slow and smooth in her movement, she had us all self-conscious in the fact that we were struggling to sit cross legged on the floor!
Leaping on a bus once again we headed the last 30 minutes of our day’s travel up to a series of tree-clad plateaus beneath a scattering of peaks. It took the dawn of the following day to start getting our bearings and we weren’t quite prepared for what Shiga Kogen offered. That place is ENORMOUS! Recent upgrades to their ticketing system mean that with one pass we had access to over 60 lifts across 21 ski fields and a free shuttle to each. Despite skiing there for two days, realistically we would have struggled to ski the entire spread of runs on offer, really shoving home the fact that it is the largest ski area in Asia. What we did discover though, was a fun, family friendly resort that provides immaculately prepared piste runs ranging in steepness and width meaning there was something for everyone. Winding trails, wide springy corduroy in the mornings and for those wanting a little adventure; the opportunity to nip into the trees bordering the piste. Instead of the resort town culture that many of us are used to, Shiga Kogen has clusters of hotels at the base of most of the main arterial lifts. These vary in price and size but all generally include breakfasts and dinner. A quick chat with a visiting Australian family confirmed that the ski in/ski out aspect of this set up is awesome for kids and the English speaking ski schools and accessible slopes make for a happy holiday
With some time to spare on our final day we opted to have a wander through the Shibu Spa area of Yamanouchi town. Once again the amazing balance of tradition, history and modern Japan struck me at full noise. We stepped from a busy road into the hidden and quiet Shibu area. Time definitely slowed down as we passed old women bent double, sweeping their back steps and giggling posse’s of Japanese girls tottering down the narrow cobbled streets in their robes and wooden sandals. Amazingly someone had the foresight to protect this gem of a place, retaining much of the traditional architecture, streetside stores and culture revolving around the rest and relaxation that is so important to many domestic travellers. Given the opportunity again we would have opted for at least one night in one of the traditional local ryokan’s (small hotel) and taken the time to tour the winding streets, onsen hopping as the Japanese visitors have for 1300 years.
Next stop Nozawa Onsen!
The adventure continues… and hits the powder jackpot in Nozawa Onsen
Nozawa Onsen may just be the complete combo of charming Japanese culture and brilliant snow that an overseas ski trip is all about! After visiting Hakuba and Shiga Kogen which are surrounded by relatively sprawling urban areas, Nozawa in contrast is a compact and beautiful hillside township dotted with big old trees, bath houses, street side shopping and accommodation.
The silky thermal water of the area is central to not only the local way of life but has been attracting visitors for centuries. Streets are kept clear of snow by running hoses with holes in them (we thought there was some serious maintenance issues going on!) trickling the steaming water across the main thoroughfares. Food stores capture the steam from the subterranean waterways, using it to cook delicious nikuman to order and there are convenient and somewhat decadent “foot bath” stops everywhere! There is even a public onsen kitchen (well….locals only to keep us ignorant visitors safe!) where veggies are dropped into the 90 degree plus water and cooked for dinner! But the most divine aspect of this area’s amazing natural resource is of course the actual bath houses. We enjoyed an onsen daily at our hotel and any of the 13 public baths scattered in beautiful traditional buildings around town.
Our stay at the Ryokan Sakaya (owned by an 18th generation local!)gave us an insight into the tranquility of top Japanese style accommodation with large apartment style rooms complete with roll out futon beds, tatami mat flooring and a heated table! After drifting out of the onsen post ski, sipping green tea with Sumo wrestling on TV (yup we got quite addicted!) we would then sit down to a 12 course meal. Despite the ”interesting” appearance of much of the food, I was consistently surprised at how delicious it all was! One night following Wagyu beef at a local restaurant and pre-Karaoke bar session, we were even treated to deep fried grasshoppers and sake from a bowl with a freshly cooked fish! That was a first! (and probably last…)
Oh yeah…that’s right, I haven’t got to the powder yet!
A quick stroll up a cobbled street in our ski boots bought us to the awesome Yu Road (moving walkway) which sent us a whisking casually uphill minus the effort and arriving at the base of one of the two gondolas. The Nozawa Onsen ski area spreads across the slopes of Mt Kenashi (1650m) with 297 hectares of skiing to be had. This most likely refers to the piste available but let’s not forget the awesome tree lines at this place! While there is a lot of terrain still fenced as out of bounds, we found more than enough wide open glades with great pitch to make the most of what I would like to declare “ the most ridiculously light and dry powder I have skied in my life!” Yeah yeah you’ve heard it all before… BUT let me try to explain. White smoke springs to mind! There was no way in hell we could ski behind each other for the fact that every powder frother was throwing up a dense snowy fog. It was light enough to blow off your clothes. It sort of crested around your legs like a soft breaking wave. And it was like wafting on silky smooth slopes of whipped cream. Enough? Get it?
Our appetite for off piste skiing was more than satisfied but on checking out the rest of the ski area it is clearly a fantastic, easy and accessible option for family and group holidays with PLENTY of snow and slopes for all levels. The mix of fun ski terrain, tasty Japanese pow and the traditional charm of Nozawa Onsen makes is a super appealing location that is well worth breaking the piggy bank for.
The end of the line for an epic ‘Japanuary’ adventure…
I think Mother Nature took a keen interest in our winter tour of Nagano, because she decided to treat us on our arrival in Myoko. She decided to treat us REAL good.
The Myoko area, on average, receives 13 metres of snow a year. That’s kind of up there as one of the snowiest places on the planet! Who knew?! Well we definitely didn’t and that is why the 3.5-plus metres of snow that fell over the three days of our stay somewhat blew us away. The word on the street was that this much snow hadn’t fallen in such a short period for over 30 years! With that in mind, you would think this would cause some serious hurdles for those trying to get on with everyday life (other than snorkel worthy skiing!) Our crew were constantly dumbstruck at how life simply continued. The kids walked to school (on the road as the footpaths had long since disappeared) with no more than a blazer, pair of gumboots and umbrella. 80 year old grannies cleared their front steps with gritty determination. Graders, snow-blowers and lightweight little cars patiently shared the road and no one was wearing enough clothing! However, that local nonchalance didn’t rub off on us at all. Every day we looked incredulously out of our hotel window at the mounting road side banks, hearts thumping and ski feet twitching.
So yes, living in it was amazing. Skiing it, well, let’s just say I went through a few phases!
Phase One was visiting Seki Onsen the morning they received 1.5 metres of fresh in just 5 hours. Both exciting and terrifying. The relaxed vibe, low key facilities and super cool staff had the familiar ring of a New Zealand club field and this was matched by the lack of restrictions they placed on where we could and could not ski. First distinct feeling of the day? Oh yeah… fear as I watched a skier take two turns then sink completely out of sight to ski submerged styles under the thick top layer of virgin pow. That snow was the deepest I had skied in my 25 years of sliding and I had to put some tactics in place. Zero turns, as much bounce as possible to keep momentum in the 4sqm of snow that travelled in a wave around me, stay away from others so I wouldn’t bury them and do everything possible not to bury MYSELF!! Once I got a grip on my girly nerves, sucked it up and just skied the crazy stuff I knew that this was likely to be a once in a lifetime experience. The feeling was shared by my crew who stood stoked and a little gobsmacked at the bottom of each run.
Phase Two was also day two and this time at Akakura Kanko. With local advice to ski the top two lifts and the off piste tree runs around them, we headed on up the network of bubble chairs (by the way – it was still dumping and had another casual 1m-plus overnight). This day was THE day of my skiing life. There was hardly a soul around and a snowy heaven to pillage. We adventured to our hearts content, fresh silky lines for every run and some of the coolest steeper glade skiing we had experienced yet. The snow was still so incredibly deep but dryer than the day before and I had more than one “hero” moment, bouncing off pillowy drops, wafting between trees while regularly choking on the cloudy snow funnelling off the top of my skis. Epic. Dreamy. Exhilarating.
As you can imagine snow time at Myoko was all consuming, but the charm and snippets of culture we experienced in Japan still live on in the back of my brain. Skiing via snow covered roads, dodging graders and snowbound vehicles to our accommodation was one. Walking the snowy tree lined avenue to Togakushi shrine, where a famous Ninja gang used to hide in the forest. Drinking sake from the hugest bottle ever in a tiny rustic restaurant. The final night spent sharing whiskey and laughs around a table with snow loving locals at The Skater Bar was one of the best.
Myoko was the cherry on top of our Japanuary magical mystery tour. We never really knew what to expect and found every experience was bigger, better, more delicious and beautiful then we could have dreamed up. I would recommend a Nagano ski trip to anyone of any level and there is no doubt that a visit to this amazing country should be on everyone’s bucket list.