Ski Japan 2011 Blog


Words by Lee Townend unless stated otherwise


Feb 12
Snoworks’ third Japan adventure trip commenced with a Heathrow T5 coffee rendezvous. Last bits purchased and onto the 11hr BA flight to Tokyo Narita. We arrived at 9-15am on the Sunday morning, giving us a bigger window to explore Tokyo than in previous years.

Feb 13
Our private shuttle buses whisked us to the Tokyo Hilton, where we checked in and freshened up before heading out to explore Tokyo. This year we chose not to join an official ‘tour bus, Tokyo’ – instead armed with a tube map and some recommendations from the hotel concierge I endeavoured to lead the group around the sights myself! (much more confident with a piste map if I’m honest!)

We visited the Shinjuku Gyoen Japanese gardens, the Imperial Palace and the Senso Ji Temple. There was many a photo opportunity with the contrast of palaces and temples built in 1590 to the modern high-rise neon lights of modern day Tokyo,  pristine Japanese gardens full of Koy carp, Bonsai trees and the first sign of cherry blossom. Growing hungry and tired we popped into a traditional Japanese restaurant for Tempura and the local speciality, Tendon!

Feb 14
A leisurely breakfast for all and a good night’s sleep recharged and rejuvenated for today’s journey North to our first ski field. A short transfer to the Tokyo station, where we boarded the 200mph Bullet train to Nagano. Returning adventurers Kate Buschau & Sioban Healy  found the trains magazine made for great amusement, with many a weird and wonderful item available. The best of which being a ‘USB hair follicle device!’ It appears that you plug it into you’re your laptop, can then see the picture of your head on the screen & then scan said device over the bald patches to assist with re-growth of the hair follicles. Only in Japan!

Arriving in Nagano we took a Japan-style ‘fast food lunch’. Fresh, tasty noodles, cooked in minutes in front of you, imagine Wagamama but better. Then a short transfer to the Jigokundani Snow Monkey Park – these Maques are native to Japan and come down to the hot Onsen pools in the winter months to keep warm and find food. They are desperately cute and incredibly photogenic.

Onward to Nozawa Onsen where we arrived in time to settle into our Japanese rooms, freshen up in the Onsen & dress suitably (Kimonos) for our first elite Japanese dining experience.

First ski day tomorrow and the snow looks amazing and it’s still falling…….

Feb 15
They say ‘ A picture paints a thousand words’ so today’s blog is purely that! The first day skiing. WOW!!! (see link to photos above)

Feb 16 (words by Shona Robertson & Grant Hamilton)
After a hearty Japanese breakfast, the lesser mortals opting for a traditional ‘Western’ breakfast, everyone headed to the slopes in great anticipation of the day ahead. Not only did it snow all day yesterday but today we woke to beautiful blue skies and not a cloud in sight, perfect powder conditions. Carlsberg don’t do ski holidays, fortunately Snoworks do…….

We all eagerly hit the powder from first thing in the morning, starting off with some of the same runs we tackled yesterday, but this time with way more visibility. The views from the top of the mountain were stunning and it was great to be able to see the surrounding mountains. We tackled a few new areas and ended up on a short traverse back onto the run. However, as more people flattened the track it did get faster and faster. Shona took the term ‘keep your speed up’ to heart and ended up flying off the end into a small tree, fortunately both Shona and bump are doing fine!

Lunch soon followed and we found a lovely traditional Japanese restaurant where we all indulged in the usual Japanese fair, huge bowls of noodles with a variety of sauces all prepared in minutes. This reset our energy levels for the afternoon as we prepared ourselves for ‘the big one’ – one long run which would enable us to be off the hill by 3:30pm. The run was great, we had 6–7 steep sections to ski and there were some pretty tired legs by this point which resulted in some spectacular falls, tumbles, roly-polys, backflips and just sitting down! At one point we were worried we may have to carry Grant and Tony out of the valley as their skis decided to partake in snow scuba. Thankfully, we managed to find them, (is there an app for that?) We skied down getting back to the hotel just in time for the bus at 5pm! So much for the ‘shorter’ afternoon. However, it’s safe to say that everyone enjoyed the day and there were a few weary legs to show for the 25.1km with a total vertical descent of 4000m, (now there is an app for that!).

Feb 17
We were staying in the Hukuba Tokyu hotel again this year, an incredibly high standard hotel with fantastic food, facilities and just a 5 min free shuttle bus ride to the ‘Gondara’ station (said in Japanese English accent). Our first day in ‘Hakuba’ was almost a role reversal of last year’s trip, we had skied epic powder in Nozawa this year and here the off- piste was more like Europe.  We started the day with a huge buffet breakfast, with a choice of Japanese or Western food. We hit the slopes by 9-30 and the off-piste was good – chopped up wintery powder with pockets of soft fresh snow to be found. A cheeky coffee in Mr Branson’s Virgin café and then into the secret routes we discovered last year. Hakuba does not promote off-piste skiing, however they do turn a blind eye to it and have an off-piste backcountry company in town.

The hills here are more mountain like, a little similar to Alpine resorts, however with miles and miles of silver birch trees it is clear you are in an Eastern resort. We were treated to views right across the valley and skied all day till the 5pm bus back. A quick soak and rejuvenate in the ‘Onsen’ was followed by a fine Japanese dinner.

Feb 18
The forecast last night and today was for snow, and we awoke – to snow! The rain snow limit was about 1000m (half way up) Hakubu ‘Happo One’ is from 850m to 1850m. We got the lift passes sorted and went straight to the summit chair, the ‘Grat quad’ where we found fantastic light powder snow. I set up an open practice session and duly positioned myself to capture some video and stills of the team ripping up the fresh snow. We set a meeting time for the Virgin café and the guys could have as many or few runs as they wanted. Enjoy.

Today returning adventurer Kate had chosen to come out on her Telemark skis and the turns were flowing nicely for her as I took some video, however the quads were also burning! So the coffee break was welcome. A few more runs together, taking slightly more challenging tree lines, then took a break to re-fuel.

After a tasty and healthy noodle lunch the weather came in a little so the team practiced the techniques of the morning session on the piste and the pockets of soft to the side. We wrapped up at 3-30pm today, then a quick photo shoot, a hot ‘Sake’ or a beer and back to the hotel to load the private taxis for this afternoon’s transfer to our final South Island ski field of ‘Akakora Kanko’ near ‘Myoko Kogen’. The Journey took us a little over 2 hours travelling south back through Nagano and then north east up out to Myoko. It snowed throughout the entire journey, as we crossed from Nagano to Nigata prefecture (like counties) the snow got heavier and heavier and on the motorway it was only 635m above sea level! This bodes well, the excitement in the taxi grew as we popped the cork on the second bottle of red on the party bus. We only hope they were equally elated in the sleepy bus in front? The banks of snow on the roadside grew higher than the taxis  (which are at least 8ft).

We arrived at 6-30pm, settled into the rooms and met at 8pm for dinner. This was the second ‘New’ addition to the Japan adventure itinerary for 2011. The hotel is perched on the side of the ski hill, a stunning white and red building of 5 star luxury frequented by the Japanese royal family. Sounds perfect for the ‘Powder kings and queens’ of Snoworks 2011. Dinner was a mouth-watering French dining experience, just to mix it up. All were early to bed, with the pending excitement of tomorrow’s conditions.

Feb 19 (words by Phillip Knight, Wales)
A good night’s sleep was had by all, even those that were still suffering from jet lag. It must be the comfort and ambience of this superb hotel that provided the perfect relaxation.

There was a choice of Japanese or American breakfast and the group split equally down the middle in their choices.  Everyone was bang on time this morning as we were all anticipating the superb powder that had greeted our arrival the night before. There was so much snow that we all considered ski tracers a necessity in case anyone lost a ski.

The area is not a large one, but with so much powder the off-piste was incredible and we seemed to find an infinite number of routes through the trees.  I’d like to be able to tell you the names of the lifts and runs that we used but unfortunately the piste map is all in Japanese but suffice it to say that we covered the whole of the area but mainly kept high up the mountain as this provided the best snow conditions in which to ski through the trees.

We then decided to lunch at a recommended restaurant up the mountain which was slightly delayed by the late arrival of one member of the team who was having such a great time that she missed the lift we planned to get. Eventually we all made it to lunch and then we had a few more lovely runs in the afternoon but only just made the last lift due to a late fall and lost ski by yours truly. We then returned to the hotel for a drink in the beautiful bar that overlooks the hotel’s infinity pool.

On a personal note I have to say it’s ‘the best off-piste day I’ve ever had’!

Feb 20
On our second day in Myoko we would ski Seki Onsen. Phil and myself had sourced this boutique backcountry mecca last year based purely on research and recommendations. The blogs I read the night before said ‘Don’t go if the top lift isn’t open, or it hasn’t recently snowed’ It had! (There are only 2 lifts anyway and you could almost walk up faster than the top one!)

With the hotel concierge’s assistance I established the top lift was running and booked a taxi for 8-30am for the short 30 min drive around the north east side of Mount Myoko. As we rode the first lift  (the second one would open at 10am) the sun beat heavily onto the South facing slopes and first time adventurer ‘Phirrip-son’ said ‘How are we going to make a day last here?’ – (If only we could of seen into the future). A couple of warm up runs on the only piste there is, past the only restaurant there is and we were ready for off-piste. I had read there were 3 skiable valleys here that ‘almost’ returned you to the lift station and with full backcountry safety equipment I was ready to explore with the group. Then we struck gold.

A local guy called Araki Yosuki that had been helping on the lift approached me and the conversation went a bit like this:

‘You want ski off-piste?’ ‘Yes please’. ‘I show you secret place, top secret yes?’. ‘Yes please’. ‘I show you, come with me, top secret yes, and you eat please in this restaurant’ (He points at the only restaurant there is!). ‘Yes O.K sounds, good thanks.’

As I rode the chair with my new friend and local guide Araki he handed me a token for 1 ride on a chair lift in the next resort of Q-kamar and proceeded to explain the route. He didn’t join us but explained it well and when we got in to the first slightly steeper section it opened up a great face of cold north facing Japanese powder, yee haa.

This long valley took us on a real backcountry experience that brought us out at a chair lift in the next valley – one short ride and a 10 min walk and we were back at the bottom chair in Seki. Wow!

From that point on he gave us tips and suggestions and we skied over into both valleys either side of the resort ‘aspect chasing’ due to the hot sun, yet skiing north facing powder all day. Lunch in the restaurant was fantastic and was served by, yes you guessed, Araki. It turns out his family own the restaurant and the 2 lifts! We had found the best Japanese guide this side of Tokyo.

That evening we enjoyed another exquisite Japanese meal, Sukiyaki and recollected the day. We had skied amazing powder and European style off-piste for the last six days in the South Island, tomorrow we fly north.

Feb 21
‘Travel day’

An amusing start to the day was clearly the destiny of things to come as first time adventurer Shona Robertson came to breakfast with news she had dropped her mobile down the toilet! There is about 15 different buttons on your average Japanese toilet to wash, dry, clean, heat, play music etc…Unfortunately Shona, I can’t find one for phone retrieval!

Episode 2 commenced with our 8-30am departure transfer to Haneda airport. Now Japanese time-keeping is better than the Swiss, so when there was no bus at the hotel on time we awaited news. Sure enough the staff of the hotel informed us there had been a crash in the tunnel coming up the road, they would shuttle us down, we would then walk through the tunnel with our luggage and connect with another bus. The crashed bus in the tunnel was ours – with the Snoworks sign in the window!

So we were put on an out of service school bus and shuttled to a nearby truck stop where we met up with a new slightly less dented coach for the rest of the journey. ‘It’s always an adventure with Snoworks!’

A comfortable and efficient flight with JAL to New Chitose airport Sapporo, then another private bus transfer to Niseko, the powder capital of Japan.

This year we have chosen to stay in the Vale hotel at the foot of the mountain giving us better access to the ski slopes, town and especially the night skiing.

The tired and weary travellers had a well deserved beer and a meal before crashing out early to recharge for tomorrow’s first North island ski in the tree-lined slopes of Rusutsu.

Feb 22
The Vale hotel was our accommodation this year in Niseko – it is a very modern apt style hotel with high speed wireless & great coffee and food.  We had breakfast and were shuttled the short journey to ‘Rusutsu’.

The sun was shining and the sky clear, quite a difference on last year and a real treat to be able to see the scenery and the dramatic Mt Yotei volcano. We met up with ‘Powder Pete’, our good friend and guide for the North island. Pete has been here for 12 seasons  and knows the area like no-one else. A fantastic day’s skiing was had by all in and out of the trees, we enjoyed ripping up the pistes and even a go in the rut line. The Japanese love bumps and create massively long zip lines.

On the final run of the day we skied untracked snow all the way down to the road edge where our taxi picked us up to return to Niseko. A great first day had by all.

Feb 23
This morning we chose to go out for breakfast to the recommended J-Sekka just across the road, then hooked up with Pete for a 9-15am start.

Today would bring pea soup and wind, and I don’t mean for lunch! The weather would not be on our side, so it meant we couldn’t get high or through the backcountry gates, so we skied the pistes and stopped for a coffee to meet up with our ground crew host and Snoworks Japan course co-ordinator, Natalie. Our bubbly Australian host chatted and shared a break with team 2011 before we headed out for some more skiing. A few of the team took the afternoon off to shop and chill, Kate brought the Telemark skis out again and I took the remainder on a hunt for the best of the rest.

After a short break we hit the slopes again for the famous ‘world’s largest’ night skiing – with the slopes floodlit and practically empty I set up a free ski session and the team tore up the upper part of the mountain.  Night skiing is fantastic in that you instantly feel like you ski better and faster – whether you do or not I’m not sure – however what it does do is narrow your focus of attention and increase concentration creating a better and finer focus point and quicker reaction time. Everyone was buzzing on it. I got a few photos and a touch of video and then we grabbed a quick shower before heading into town for a Japanese dinner in one of the many local restaurants.

Feb 24
Our second full day in Niseko would bring similar weather to yesterday with the top lifts closed for wind therefore preventing any backcountry gate access. ‘Niseko rules’ is a system of gates accessing the off-piste areas here, thus allowing the ski patrol to regulate the safety aspects and decisions – this gains respect from the powder hunters preventing any illegal rope-ducking.

It was like Japan 2011 was a reverse of 2010 – we had epic powder in the South and were having less than perfect conditions here in the North. Following returning adventurer Peter Craggs’ endless zealousness of the North Island powder this created a little of an anticlimax, however with the Australian and naturally high-spirited Powder Pete and Snoworks’ own Mr positive we set about skiing pockets of off-piste in the trees and carving up the piste. Also our Japan ground host Natalie Kilminster joined us on the slopes today, which gave the clients a fantastic opportunity to give feedback about the trip. A million positives were received with the only suggestion being moving it forward a couple of weeks. Keep your eyes on our website for the 2012 dates.

During lunch I hatched a plan! –

(Words by Tony Daw)

With off-piste terrain limited there had to be another way of livening up the afternoon – Tele-marking! With Kate appointed instructor, 5 of us were marched off to hire Tele-kit. I don’t know if I was glad that they had no boots to fit me or not. Some others seemed both apprehensive and jealous. I was appointed videographer and we hit the slopes. The first turns were predictably cautious. People seemed happy just to make it back to the lift in one piece. A variety of amusing takes on the correct technique had been tried, none looking particularly elegant at this stage. Pete’s feet-together, old style alpine skiing stood him in good stead and soon started to look his usual smooth and relaxed self. Grant’s brute force and ignorance approach also seemed to be working. Phil decided this wasn’t for him and switched back to his own skis. As the afternoon wore on confidence grew and for the last run, we all took the ‘gondora’ much higher up the mountain. A quick shot of Dutch courage and we set off. Dusk was falling and the lights had come on at this stage. Everyone made it down safely, but I’m not sure how many will be sticking on the Teles in future.

After a quick freshen up we met in the bar before heading to a quiet small steak bar, Steak Rosso Rosso. If you’ve never cut a steak with the back of your knife, you have to try ‘Kobe beef’. It comes highly recommended by 3 of the party, but all food was excellent. We were last to leave the restaurant and coffee was taken back at the hotel whilst reflecting on a great, if a little topsy-turvy, adventure holiday.

Feb 25
Today was our departure day and with light snow flurries falling it gave the wintery look back to Niseko for final photos, a great brunch & some souvenir shopping. We checked out of the Vale and took the short transfer back to Sapporo airport for our afternoon flight to Tokyo’s Narita airport. We checked into the Hilton Narita & popped into town for our final Japanese dinner and adventure course wrap-up.

Finally a huge thank you to Snoworks for letting me host this trip again, roll on 2012; to Natalie and Pete for their assistance putting this newer, bigger, better itinerary together and to Linda & Gaynor for all their hard work compiling all the information and logistics.

If the diary of events and attached photos within have enticed, inspired and tempted you to savour the delights of Japan’s culture, food and hospitality and you crave to ski possibly the deepest and undoubtedly the lightest powder in the world then don’t hesitate to contact Linda at Snoworks to reserve your place for the 2012 trip. Places are sure to fill fast and in order to keep the adventure trips personal there will be just 14 places.

Cheers Lee.

Ski Japan (4)