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Cross country skiing Japan!

Written on: Thursday March 19th, 2015

A journal entry from: Japan I can

Skiing Japan!

(For more pictures and blogs of the rest of Japan, see previous blogs). 

Well another ski season has come and past and with that many great memories. This past December, Laure and I were fortunate to travel to Japan for several weeks to sightsee and ski. Most people don't associate Japan with skiing at all, and if they do, they think deep powder skiing, surely not cross country skiing. When you think of Japan, you think of big cities, robots and sushi, however there is so much more to explore and we were on a mission to combine a new cultural adventure with some epic cross country skiing!

The idea was quite exciting, however although the Japanese mountains are covered in heaps of snow, finding information on trail locations and clubs was virtually impossible! Not only is there not much information to be found, the little that you can is understandably in Japanese which even with Google Translate is hard to piece together. With our tickets purchased and a dream in mind, I started contacting world cup skiers via their websites in hope that someone could give us a little guidance. To our surprise, we were shortly afterwards contacted by a very helpful individual named Dion, who was the father of World Cup Skier, Akira Lenting. Dion, native of New Zealand and now a long time resident of Japan had perfect English and an unbelievable passion for the sport. Through several weeks of emails, he had helped us confirm our ski itinerary as well as offered various other recommendations which really bolstered our trip!

We ended up flying with one pair of training skate skis each in a hard case ski box. Upon our arrival in Tokyo, we were able to send our skis via overnight courier from the airport to our first ski accommodation in a week and a half's time in the mountains. This saved us an unbelievable amount of heartache. Lugging skis through never ending Tokyo and its enormous hectic subways would have been a nightmare.

Fast forward 1.5 weeks and we were headed via bullet train from Kyoto to Nagano and by a local one way train, up, up and up into the mountains. Our destination, Hakuba. Home to the xc and ski jumping during the 1998 Nagano Olympics. One thing that must be noted about the area is the quantity of snow that plummets to the ground every winter. The areas we were skiing received an average of 12-13 metres of snow a year! (Metres, not feet). This is FIVE times the amount of snow received in Boston during this "record breaking year" they have had. At any given point in time, there is a base of 2-3 metres. This makes the local roads, look like tunnels! Fortunately, however, it is not cold. With usual temperatures ranging from -5 to +8ish.

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. 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 are used to with 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 fairly short in order to catch a bus back to Nagano.

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. 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. In my opinion, this is testimony to the type of people that skiers are, willing to help other fellow skiers as we share a common bond for the sport. We also managed to watch a stage of the tour de ski live that night with the whole family. Many of these skiers Akira has been racing against since he was 17 at world events. Unfortunately, Japan did not enter a team into the tour. 

The following 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 downhill's. 

From here we headed back to Nagano and further into a different area of the mountains. This time staying in Nozawaonsen.

Nozawa was the sight for the Olympic biathlon course, and was within walking distance from our place. On our 2nd day, we skied together at the course. It was sad to see how run down the facilities have become, and again the lack of skiers present. The course however challenging with it's endless climbing was beautiful and a lot of fun to ski. The trails were in perfect shape and I really had a blast skiing here. The following day I returned by myself as Laure was starting to feel a little ill and had the entire venue to myself. It was snowing and I put on some good music and just skied all by myself in the mountains for 1.5h. This was a surreal experience. 

Overall, cross country skiing in Japan is a very different experience than what we are used to here in Canada. I would not consider going back to Japan as an x-c ski destination, however, if you are looking to combine a new culture and skiing, it is certainly worth considering. The whole experience there has given me a much greater appreciation for our local club and ski community. To have an actual/physical club with warm meals, waxing facilities and endless kilometres of perfect trails is really quite special. Combined with the community feeling our club brings, and the culture that although we don't think exists, really does exist quite strongly. I sometimes think that we forget just how lucky we really are to have our club and take it for granted. 


From Ken N on Apr 10th, 2015

Thanks for the story. Always wondered about the whole deal at Nagano. Did not even know where it was on the map. You think that place is run down you should see pic's of the 84 olympics. Trees growing through the bob sled venue.

From Ines on Oct 25th, 2015

Taky budu kupovat botky, pjidru se s tebou poradit. Cekam ale na leto, budou dobre cenovky, aspon myslim.PS: mam fotky a video z Choreho garage party, mam to v mobilu. Mohlo by se to hodit sem.