Sushi, Sidecountry and Smiles in the Land of the Rising Sun
In late January 2018 I got an email from pro skier Adam Ü asking if I was interested in joining him a 10-day trip to Nozawa Onsen and Myoko located near Nagano and the Honshu Peninsula on the main island of Japan. Adam was just back from a trip with his girlfriend to those same two places and was ready to do a few loads of laundry, repack his bags and head back for more. I finished reading his email, looked up from my laptop at the nearly barren peaks of the San Juan Mountains of SW Colorado, and tried to remember if I had yet to score a legitimate powder day or even good powder turn season to date. Colorado was suffering through one of the driest seasons on record and the long term forecast was grim showing nothing but high and dry for the coming weeks. I sent a text to photographer Grady James to ask if he was interested in a trip to Japan to ski and shoot some powder. Being that the last minute trip wasn’t going to be cheap, Grady asked about my confidence in our ability to score the goods. I told him that while there is no “sure thing” in skiing, mid-winter powder in Japan is as close at it gets.
Adam Ü was an early adopter of skiing in Japan and over the last decade has more than a dozen trips to the country under his belt. Being that it wasn’t Adam’s first rodeo in Japan we were happy to let him construct a plan and follow his lead. This trip to Japan would be the first for Grady and my first trip back since a visit to Myoko in 2012.
A few weeks later we touched down at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, and met up with Swedish ski journalist Tobias Liljeroth, who would be the fourth member of our powder posse. Our crew breezed through customs and climbed into a shuttle Adam had booked for the 3-hour ride to Nozawa. The trip can also be done with a few train rides but the shuttle was so easy and allowed us to skip the Tokyo Main Train Station, one of the world’s busiest, handling about a million passengers a day.
Thankfully Adam had stayed at the same hotel in Nozawa a few weeks earlier as finding it without insider intel would have been a challenge even with GPS. Given that Nozawa is better than 1,000 years old, the village wasn’t designed with the modern automobile in mind. The streets are narrow, steep, windy and the buildings are packed together densely into the hillside. We arrived at our Ryokan-style lodge and traded our street shoes for house slippers and were shown to our room. Having been in Japan before I was accustomed to the traditional (very basic) accommodations and confined spaces, but I could see in Grady’s eyes that the sparse setting was not what he had envisioned. The small room consisted of four thin mattress pads that could not be laid out in any possible configuration without touching. Through the frosty window pane a lone streetlight illuminated a few thousand snowflakes floating to their final destination. As a long day of travel took its toll we crawled beneath the sheets and I mentioned to Grady that we hadn’t come to Japan for luxurious accommodations but instead had come seeking copious amounts of powder and amazing culture.
Morning one dawned sunny and blue with a fresh coat of white providing a beautiful view of the rolling mountains stretching far across the valley to the distant peak of Mount Myoko which we would see up close and personal later in the trip. We caffeinated and enjoyed our breakfast options which ran the gauntlet ranging from sushi and miso soup to pancakes and sausage.
En route to the base area we passed a half dozen public onsens, Japanese hot springs/bath houses, used not only by skiers at days end but by locals that have been bathing in these same therapeutic waters for generations. Mental notes were made on where we needed to return at day’s end to soak muscles hopefully exhausted from a powder feast.
We boarded the Hikage gondola, and Adam gave us the lay of the land as he outlined the best way to maximize our days in Nozawa. The plan was to use the lift system to get us to the high point of Mt Kenashi, at 5,400 feet, and then head into the backcountry for a day of touring. A few lift rides later we reached the summit and Adam pointed out a half dozen ski areas and the rugged snowcaked Japanese Alps which towered in striking contrast above the dark blue Sea of Japan. We tested beacons and checked packs to make sure we were all in possession our full backcountry skiing kits. When skiing Japan it is highly recommended that you carry all your backcountry gear even when skiing steep and treed terrain inside the resort boundaries. A majority of Japanese skiers stick to groomed slopes so skiers seeking adventure need to be prepared to look after themselves once they leave the piste whether inside the resort boundaries or beyond.
We left the ski area behind and traversed to an opening in the trees where we regrouped. Adam pointed out the day’s backcountry objective – an area known as Buna Bowl. To get started, we needed to ski about 200 vertical feet to the low point on the ridge and skin up from there. Once the plan was discussed, Adam and Tobias wasted no time dropping in and vanished in plumes of cold smoke. My gaze turned to Grady and he grinned before sharing some philosophical magic, saying, “This isn’t going to suck!” The deep snow muffled the sounds but I could have sworn there were multiple hoots and hollers trailing behind his snowy wake. My first turn was merely knee deep but with gravity providing natural acceleration the remaining turns to the notch all delivered the customary face shots one comes to know and love when skiing Japan.
With skins on I started breaking trail toward the ridge. With each step my 115mm-waisted skis sank 18” into the snow. There was little doubt that this track would become our personal elevator to Trenchtown. Twenty minutes later we peered over the edge and beneath our ski tips did only perfectly spaced silver birch trees interrupt an untracked canvas. Although it was below our line of sight, Adam mentioned that we would eventually hit an obvious traverse that would lead us back in the direction of the ski area. Our plan was to take the traverse across the bottom of our personal playground and place a skintrack back up toward the notch where our skinning began, closing the loop and giving us the chance to yo-yo our snowy Mecca for as long as our legs would last.
For the next few hours we did our best to make up for a winter back home devoid of powder turns. Each turn was deep and for Grady and myself, each run was truly our “Best of the Season.” After lap six our legs were tapped and screaming for some onsen time. At the completion of our last lap we passed by our uptrack and took the long traverse back toward the ski area. Along the way I paused to take a look back at the substantial white canvas to savor our turns and laughed taking note that we had never crossed even a single track.
The day of immersion therapy was followed by the required trifecta of an onsen soak, sake and sushi. By nightfall, low clouds had crept in from the Sea of Japan and the sky was once again pounding which would lead to a foot overnight, merely a ho-hum amount by Japanese standards. The next few days day we followed Adam around Nozawa and logged nearly 20,000 vertical feet of slackcountry lines each day around the ski area. While the tree skiing in Japan is world class it is occasionally knocked for being found on lower angled slopes. The trees in Nozawa will never fall victim to this criticism. We skied long lines within the ski area’s boundary and explored an area locals called the “Back Bowl,” which is not to be confused with the low angle area in Vail sharing the same moniker. Many of the trees we skied in Nozawa were in excess of 45 degrees and found us free falling, Tom Petty style, between turns. Tree skiing on slopes this steep was both an exhilarating and draining experience as speed came quickly and there were few places to dump speed that didn’t come with the risk of the potentially experiencing rapid deceleration courtesy of a timber backstop.
Our last day in Nozawa finished with a long run off the summit into a deep valley that eventually deposited us onto the Cross Country ski course used in the 1998 Winter Olympics. The four of us skated along the manicured track looking a bit out of place, having traded Lycra for giant skis and backpacks. From the edge of the Nordic course we ascended a short steep chairlift and dropped into some steep trees for our last run of the day. We played on perfect pillows and made our last turns beneath a small shrine ensconced in a winter blanket meters deep.
As we walked down the hill to our hotel we all agreed that we needed a lifetime, or at least many more trips, to really experience what this place had to offer. We spent the last few hours of the daylight strolling the quaint streets of Nozawa and visiting the Japanese Ski Museum, a must-see, before a quick soak and shuttle ride across the valley to the village of Myoko Kogen.
While Adam knew his way around Nozawa, it is Myoko that is truly his adopted backyard. Adam might know Myoko better than just about any Gaijin – The term Japanese use for foreigners. Myoko is a collection of a half dozen ski areas including Seki Onsen, which is famous for copious snowfalls, single chairs and some of the deepest powder skiing in the world. If you want to hot lap deep powder Seki is tough to beat, but we were in Myoko for lift accessible touring and the place for that is Akukura Kanko.
The first day in Myoko the snow fell at a rate of a couple inches an hour so we spent the day doing what locals call “Tunnel Laps.” From the ski area, we navigated into a steep backcountry zone loaded with incredible mini-golf lines comprised of spines, pillows, and avalanche barriers, which create incredible launch pads for airtime. No matter where you drop in you end up on a traverse that leads to an old tunnel about 75 yards long. The exit through the tunnel is both a novel and exciting way to end each lap. Some skiers choose to walk through the tunnel but our crew preferred the adventure of skiing the thin ribbon of ice covering the concrete floor. Lacking night vision goggles we skied mostly by feel in the darkness. When we strayed from the icy track onto bare concrete we were given a complimentary stone grind complete with dancing sparks from our edges. Not surprisingly our day ended with a soak and a few ice-cold barley pops before feasting on Okonomiyaki, a traditional Japanese dish cooked tableside, at a locals haunt named Izakaya Sennin,
The weather gods smiled on us multiple days during our time in Myoko, which allowed us to access the backcountry area on Mount Maiyama. From the top of the Hotel #5 chairlift (The super creative lift names in Japan are endless) we joined other skiers gearing up to access the goods though a clearly marked exit gate. The well-placed skintrack climbed gradually through the forest and after 20 minutes the trees thinned and revealed serious eye candy in every direction. I spied Mt. Fuji on the southeastern horizon while left and below was Myoko Kogen and Lake Nojiri. As I made my next kick turn and the skin track headed north I had a great view of the Sea of Japan glimmering in the morning sunshine.
From our perch atop Mt. Maiyama we took in our surroundings and processed the beta our senses were transmitting. The occasional smell of sulphur wafted through the air each time a large nearby steam vent hissed while belching a white cloud into the brilliant blue sky. While we could have spent longer taking in the sights, a breeze began to blow and we could see clouds beginning to build over the ocean signaling the cycle that would likely lead to another night of heavy snow.
Skins were ditched and the discussion of where we each planned to lay down our descent trenches commenced. Since there was no risk of missing out on an untracked line I found it easy to let the others ski first so I could enjoy a minute or two in my snowy sanctuary before my own feast.
I pulled out my phone to take a photo of the incredible view from the summit. Before I snapped an image I heard another hiss and sulphur filled my nostrils. Instead of digitally documenting the scene to share, I decided instead to shut my phone off and put it back in my pocket so I could be fully present and savor the moment in real time. My 360-degree scan of the horizon ended over the ocean and the building storm clouds. Warmth came over me and I felt completely satisfied, as my recent daily sessions of Japanese Immersion therapy had returned me to my happy place. I knew at the bottom of this run would be three good friends waiting with a smile. Maybe they would be smiling because they just finished their best run of the trip or because they knew soaking, sake, sushi and more snow were in the immediate future. Whatever the reason, there would be plenty of smiles and I would likely be wearing the biggest one of all.