Loading Map...

Snow, snow and more snow

Written on: Friday January 16th, 2015

A journal entry from: Japan I can

The snowy hills of the Nagano prefecture surround us everywhere. We are in the Japanese Alps in a small ski village called Hakuba, home to most skiing events of the Nagano Olympics. This place has given a whole new meaning to "a lot of snow", with snow measured in the metres. Most areas we have been in will receive around 12 metres of snow each year! But surprisingly the warm earth and mild temperatures has it melting rather quickly. Nonetheless, neither of us have ever seen anything like it before and doubt we ever will again. 

We split our accommodation in Hakuba due to our budget, but it turned out really well. Both places were real gems in their own ways. Our first stay was in a type of almost bed and breakfast with an amazing host Koki and his wife. We basically had the whole European style chalet to ourselves. Our hosts were as always extremely nice, picking us up at the train station and making amazing meals. Koki is really a master of many trades and when he is not working he lives to rip deep powder on the most extreme mountain faces. 

From here we went skiing two days in a row at snow harp which was the xc venue for the Olympics. Unfortunately it had rained the entire day before hand and both groomers were broken down... A very dismal situation. We tried our best to make the most of the situation and ski as much as we could, but it was quite difficult to keep our heads up. The trails and conditions were the most difficult I have ever skied and you really were concerned about breaking your neck in the icy, cedar branch covered trails. That being said the views were great and it was a good build up for further skiing. *we found out later on, that snow harp was built only for the Olympics and it was made so hard that even the European skiers complained to the organizers that it was too technical of a course! And since it is so hard, not many people ski here anymore unless they are top notch athletes. Made us feel a little better about our skills. 

From here we headed up the valley for two nights at a resort situated on a very beautiful and private forest. This was our splurge for the trip and it was nice to indulge a little and enjoy the hotels onsens. An onsen is a hot bath, separated male and female, you must fully wash yourself before being allowed to enter in the nude. Daunting at first, but quite relaxing. What's interesting is that you cannot enter an onsen if you have a tattoo as you are considered not to be pure. The onsens in Hakuba that we visited were not natural ones, but yet still very relaxing after a ski. 

Seeing as the xc skiing hadn't been so great and we were surrounded by alpine ski resorts we decided to hit the slopes of Tsugaike for a change. Although I don't downhill often it was a lot of fun and a great hill for both of us with a variety of terrain. It turned out to be a really nice sunny day with great views and long runs!  The snow was really soft and unlike what we new of Ontario and eastern Canada hard packed ski slopes. Lots of fun! 

At the base of the mountain we discovered another xc course and decided to go have a quick ski the following morning before leaving for Nagano. This course was amazing, and a lot of fun to ski with a really long winding section overlooking the alps. One of the most fun courses I have ever skied and perfectly groomed trails surrounded by never ending snow! I was so happy and it was a huge relief to know that there were indeed great skiing conditions to be found in Japan after the let down of snow harp. I could have skied here for hours, but unfortunately we had to cut our time there fairly short in order to catch a local bus back to the resort in order to checkout and make our connecting bus to Nagano. *we did managed to squeeze in one last quick onsen before rushing to make the bus! :)

In Nagano we were picked up by an aquantaince we had made, Dion and his son Akira. I have to take a moment and explain how this relationship formed. Months back as we were doing our research on xc skiing in Japan, no matter how hard I tried, the information was extremely difficult to come across. I knew there were ski courses to be found and so decided to send a short message to various world cup skiers webpages hoping to find someone who was willing to help. 

To our surprise, Dion, the father of Japanese World Cup skier Akira Lenting responded with perfect English and willing to help. This turned out to be a real lifesaver. Dion is originally from New Zealand and therefore was able to communicate with us back and forth. He now resides in Japan after meeting his wife years ago hiking in Nepal. Really a cool story and turned out to be an unbelievable source of information, and truly helped us shape our trip. 

After communicating back and forth for several weeks, Dion invited Laure and I to stay a night with their family as they were also very interested in learning more about the ski culture and structure in Canada. Spending a day and a half with them was very humbling when it comes to skiing. People do not leisurely cross country ski in Japan! Period! It is so weird, they ski as young children at school and then pick only one discipline to focus their extra curricular activity in for the rest of their studies. They do not change or experience any others and they do this activity full on. When they are done or have reached their peak and can no longer go any further, they tend to completely stop. Parents do not go skiing with their kids and clubs are mostly made up of pupils only. 

So the whole concept of coming to Japan to simply ski for "fun" is a rather strange one to people here. Further, due to the low number of skiers and the sheer amount of snow, most courses are limited to 2.5k or 5k loops. It's amazing that given the limited infrastructure and ski culture that they are still able to produce world class athletes. The only thing that Laure and I can figure is that they have such unbelievable determination, unlike most kids back home. To train for a 30k race is to basically ski a hamster wheel. But yet they do it, and they are really good. The skiers that you do encounter are usually extremely good! If they weren't they wouldn't be skiing anymore!

Given the mix background of the Lenting family and the fact that Akira skis on the world cup circuit, they were extremely welcoming and really took us in. From the bus station we drove up and up and up some more, high up into the mountains where we went to a traditional soba noodle restaurant (fresh buckwheat noodle). A great little place. From here they took us for a nice hike to a local shrine. It was about 2km each way on a snow packed trail. The walk in was really nice and lined with ancient cedar trees. The actual shrine itself has been mostly destroyed by an avalanche... But one of the nicest things was just being able to talk to locals and ask them questions we have had up to date and compare societies. It was interesting to talk about our respective real estate markets. It is not uncommon for families to build quick and cheap box homes that they only give a 30 year lifespan to. They literally bulldoze them down afterwards. 

Another thing that was interesting to me was how the Japanese are people of such great structure and precision. Many times I felt to myself that there were many similarities with the German people. Dion said it best; they are both nations that pride themselves on precision manufacturing. That really stuck with me. *but I have to admit that the Japanese train system is more superior. Faster and more punctual!

That afternoon we went back to the family home which was custom built from predominantly imported material from the west coast of North American in order to have better r value. It really was a beautiful spot with almost panoramic views of mountains on three sides. Dion made a great homemade meal and invited one of his ski buddies Greg from BC who also met his Japanese wife while travelling and has since lived here. It was a lot of fun to share stories and news. 

One of the coolest parts was going down into Akiras wax room in the basement where we waxed our skis again and he started unpacking some of his gear from his recent races. He had just returned home the day before from months away training and racing in Europe. He lives and trains in Sweden so that he can receive better coaching and be closer to the World Cup circuit. He had just finished some races in northern Japan as well. When he travels, he travels with 20 pairs of skis and usually 5 pairs of poles. 10 classic and 10 skate. I was like a kid in a candy shop, to see all the best skis and poles in such quantity was too funny. He also showed us his pile of poles that he is no longer using, just a stack of the best poles on the market sitting in a corner. 

The other neat thing was that we watched a stage of the tour de ski live that night with the whole family. It was cool to see how into it the parents were and how they were talking about these top athletes on a first name bases. Many of these skiers he has been racing against since he was 17 at world events. Unfortunately, Japan did not enter a team into the tour. 

The next morning we also got to go skiing with Akira at his local ski club. Again mostly only children skiing. And the groomed course was limited to a 5k course. Laure and I were both a little in awe getting to ski with such a top athlete. Thankfully it was an easy ski day for him. I tried to soak in as much as I could. We compared average heart rates after skiing 12k with mine being 145 bpm while his was only 103 bpm! That's when it hits you what kind of an athlete you are skiing beside. His max heart rate was almost 20 lower than my average! It was also nice to ski another new course, which was relatively easy but still had some really fun downhills. 

After another great homemade lunch, Dion drove us about an hour to our next stop on the trip, a small onsen village near the famous monkey park. 

The last 5 days have been really active and great, and we are now on to the last leg of the trip. 

All the best,

David W.