A group of European boarders and skiers leave a disastrous winter behind them and fly to Japan’s main island, Honshu, to satisfy their craving for powder
Story and photography by Fabrice Wittner
By the end of December 2014 we were still without a single snowflake. The bones of the Old Continent were laid bare, our skis and boards untouched since the end of the previous winter, nine months before.
For my ski buddies and I – fellow Frenchmen Flo Bastien, Julien Lange, Leo Taillefer and Jules Bonnaire, along with Swiss Laurent De Martin – a winter without snow was unthinkable. Gypsies all, we were hungry for the road less travelled. Besides, we needed something for our cameramen friends Yann Barthelemy and Jeremy Feburier to get their teeth into for their next Gpsy Feelin movie, Cruise Control.
And so our thoughts turned to the stories we’d heard about Japan, and specifically the main island of Honshu. While Niseko and other snow-blessed resorts on the northern island of Hokkaido have grown in popularity with Europeans as the Alps have become a less reliable option, we are not the sort to follow the herd. So Honshu it was.
Some basic research yielded a shortlist of sites in the Nagano area of the Japanese Alps as well as news that a couple of metres of snow were forecast imminently for the region. That was all we needed and we scrambled to book, pack and head out.
Days later, after a brief glimpse of Tokyo’s hubbub, we jumped aboard the shinkansen to tear through the sunny countryside to Nagano. It was pretty, but with no snow in sight yet, a doubt wormed into our minds. Had we missed the forecast dump?
At Nagano station, we switched to a bus, glancing up as we did toward mountains hidden under dark stormy clouds. A good omen. And in less than an hour, the sun, still bathing the city below, disappeared for good. Instead, we saw a few promising snowflakes drift past. Then the fall thickened into flurries. Winter didn’t come to us, we came to it. Rooftops slowly loaded with snow, higher and higher as we ourselves climbed, nearing the quaint old ski town of Nozawa Onsen.
Pillows and onsen
By the time we unloaded in the town centre, we were surrounded by the storm and everything lay under a thick white veil. Everything except the roads, kept open thanks to classically Japanese efficient snow-clearing and huge drains in which to dump the snow. The narrow roads and abundance of appealingly simple wooden buildings told even our inexperienced European eyes that this was no town built for tourists. It had an air of authenticity and – especially with its houses heaped with powder – we were under its spell as we navigated the small streets to our guesthouse.
Renewed by a good night’s sleep and a purifying bathe in the basement onsen, we headed for the rounded, woody shoulders of the mountains. I felt immediately at home, coming from the Vosges region of France where the mountains are old and rounded too. The others were also excited: we couldn’t wait to drown the noses of our skis in the incredible amount of snow. On the way to the lift, we watched people shovel a generous metre of snow from their roof-tops. The forecast had proudly announced two more metres on the way within the next days and the news had put us snow-starved wanderers in a state close to hysteria.
From the top of the resort, at 1,650 metres, our first runs were dedicated to scouting the place for the up-coming days of filming. We spent our descents with smiles stuck goofily to our faces, though they were quickly hidden behind the snow plastered to our beards.
In no time at all we realised the potential of the place. Wide swathes of forest with spaced-out trees, pillows everywhere, even stuck to the very top of the trees. Every turn we drowned under a gigantic wave of spray, never feeling the sudden bite of hard ground under our skis. It was simply impossible to ride if the slope wasn’t steep enough. Stop for any reason and it was a fight to dig yourself out.
The other battle was to evade the vigilant ski patrols who have different policies to those we are used to in Europe. Many off-piste areas, prime free skiing territory for us, were off limits. One day they confronted us and started yelling but with little English, we simply stayed polite and kept to the piste until they were out of sight before ducking the ropes.
The temptation was greater than the fear of a ban and we sneaked repeatedly into the eastern valley, where we found many good lines starting from the ridge of Mt Kenashi. The ride took us through wide snowy fields where huge mushrooms of snow clung to the occasional centuries-old trees. The woods thickened down in the valley, right before we joined the Karasawa slopes on the far east of the resort. Though the way back was long, the ride was definitely worth it.
Besides the skiing, there was the delicious food and the town’s famous onsen, or public baths, which soon became a ritual. It was like entering a scene from Japanese folklore as we pushed aside those heavy wooden doors to enter an old room filled with steam from the volcanically heated pool. Men of all ages, most local but also other foreigners, slipped in and out of the water, some with their small modesty towels draped over their heads for an all-over roasting. The unaccustomed heat of the water bit hard at first, then subsided to a satisfying throb. Our initial noisy shock gave way to sighs and smiles as our tiredness was spirited away.
Rails, ramps and backcountry
Living in the moment, with no plans to speak of, a week sped quickly past until there came a day when all the rooms in Nozawa Onsen were booked and we were forced to move on. Such is the life of a gypsy we shrugged, and quickly moved on to Hakuba, on the other side of Nagano.
Here Jules had found us a room for eight at a guesthouse run by Alex, a solidly built Russian in his forties. The traditional feel of Nozawa was exchanged for that of a more familiar western-style ski resort with many hostels, rental shops, touristy restaurants and bars.
What this place does have is scale, with some of the country’s tallest peaks at its back and no less than nine resorts grouped under Hakuba Valley’s banner. Happo One (pronounced ‘oh-neh’), the largest and highest resort, was also the most attractive to us with its official backcountry.
To make the most of it, Flo had contacted a friend, Daisuke Fukasawa, local representative for the Black Crows, a French ski company, to show us around.
First though we spent a day exploring closer to our base in Iwatake. Alex and his wife Cathia ferried us up to the slopes as their lodge was beyond walking distance, and then stayed to watch as we went through our moves. Abandoning the heavy snow pack in the woods melting under the sun, we focused on an old lift building with an impressive rail that screamed out to be ridden. Jules and Laurent rode hard to land their tricks on the narrow patch of steep, bringing local skiers to a stop as we gave new life to that old ruin.
Next day it was time to join Daisuke on the promising slopes of Happo One. Here we all had the same idea: to climb up and explore that backcountry. At the top of the Great Quad lift, the highest in Happo One, we signed the patrol register to let them know we were headed up and then, once the skins were stuck to our skis, we were almost running uphill.
Climbing higher unveiled a row of rocky peaks daubed in white, and looking south, layer upon layer of forested ridges that looked like something from an old engraving or painting. Then the walking was done and we stood atop a trackless north-facing valley.
All along the ridge to the left, were a succession of couloirs and playful short lines while the valley itself bent around the entire resort to end just a few kilometres from town. The last part of the run followed a river bank where several dams inspired the freestylers inside us. Then the way back was either by taxi or by refitting the skins for a short climb and a long flat ride.
The ski area was so wide that we needed several days to fully appreciate it. Speaking to locals, Hakuba seems to be regarded as Honshu’s sweet spot when it comes to backcountry. That in part comes from a more open-minded approach to off-piste access, a policy first adopted in Niseko up in Hokkaido. Having helped propel Niseko to economic success and worldwide fame, that attitude is changing minds on the main island too now.
With the team dwindling with Léo and Flo flying back to France for a freestyle competition, and all of us feeling the effects of days riding and shooting, there was just enough energy left for one big set-piece.
Jules had scouted a big road gap and after long and sweaty efforts to shape the run-in through fresh, sticky snow, he sent and landed a huge back flip. Then Julien sent a Cork 720, perfectly landed.
We had all the shots we needed so on the final morning, with the snow still falling hard, we hit the woods under Kitaone 3 lift, sans cameras. Nobody was unhappy about that decision, for sure. Unencumbered and without the stop-start of filming to get in the way, we hammered into wave upon wave of snow, pillows exploding under our boards, fans of powder kicking up at every turn.
For us ski gypsies denied the joys of the European Alps, their far eastern namesakes had been a revelation. AA
When to go
December sees the first reasonable dumps most years but January and February are the core of the season. Depending on conditions and resort, you may find skiing in Honshu into April or even later.
How to get there
From Tokyo, a Shinkansen whisks you to Nagano, gateway to the resorts of the central Japanese Alps. Other, further-flung resorts are also most easily accessed by train.
www.skijapan.com is a prominent ski guide and accommodation provider which has expanded beyond its roots in Niseko to cover the best of Honshu’s resorts too.
www.snowjapan.com is an encyclopaedic resource with info on accommodation, amenities and transportation for all the country’s resorts and extensive snow reports too.
An old-school resort area more in the mould of Nozawa. Myoko gets some of the deepest dumps in all of Honshu.
This sprawling constellation of 21 inter-linked resorts provides every amenity and enough runs for weeks of riding.
A smaller, more northerly resort that is synonymous with its ‘snow monsters’, trees so plastered with pow that locals say they resemble little white devils.