Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Japanese Winter - First Time

I quickly realised that in many ways, Japan and I were separated at birth.


Enjoyable art and architecture...I never knew it to be possible

The people are polite, impersonal and unassuming. The only loud, crass and obnoxious people I saw there were foreigners (and mostly Australians). Everything is efficient, clean and helpfully arranged to allow navigation around the country (even with a very minimal understanding of the language). Japan is a delight to travel around, especially if you are an introvert like me.

And monkeys - I fucking love monkeys.

 Monkey getting more onsen time than me

As for the skiing...did someone say 'bad season?'

Apparently it didn't snow much this year in Japan (check out the chart at the bottom of this page). The difference between this year and last is about 6 meters of snow around the time I was there. I didn't hear a lot of bitching about conditions, and to be honest I found things to be generally excellent, especially in comparison to Australia.

Nozawa Onsen

Nearing sundown at Nozawa

This place is a serene little village next to a resort. We spent about a week here. Lack of snow did affect this area, as many of the steeper runs were lower down on the mountain and lacked coverage. This also resulted in the higher elevation stuff getting smashed by the big crowds on the weekends.

A related issue to crowds has provided me another reason to question my relationship with ski resorts - rope-ducking. I'm not talking about the safety issues involved; you either made an assessment and chose to do the run, or you have no idea about avalanche safety and are an accident waiting to happen. Either is fine with me - you're another person to help out if the shit goes down, or you're eventually going to be one less person in front of me in the lift line.

For me the issue is a communal management one. Runs get closed for a variety of reasons, and sometimes a run needs a bit of time to recover (as in ungroomed, steeper terrain). After a bit more snow and a rest, the mogul-ridden crap can be good for everyone again.

That is unless you and your homeboys duck the rope and shred that little bit of rad pow that fell last night. Later that night, as your tracks harden, you've just turned that run into chopped up shite with a sprinkling of fresh snow on top. The snow never got a chance to consolidate with a denser layer underneath and then powder on top. You and your mates completely fucked that run for another few days, all because you wanted the illusion of fresh tracks.

I'm not entirely sure why I find this behaviour so contemptible, but there it is. Rather than push these people over / report them / verbally abuse them, it's just another reason to avoid resorts.

Having said that, Nozawa is a great place to ski for intermediate and advanced skiers. With better coverage I could have got on more terrain. Two to three days here would suffice to get into the groove before heading elsewhere. There seemed to be relatively limited BC options here as well (a bowl out the back was about it).

As an aside, I was on a lift and saw a couple of other guys on tech bindings. Later that day, I saw them in a shop and had a brief chat - one of them was a Japanese Dynafit employee, and they were just starting to hire out some of their more recent skis in Nozawa. I got to ski the Denali and Chugach - which were both awesome and better than the DPS skis I was on. If you're there, check out the shop near the gondola - they will be renting Dynafit stuff for future seasons too.


There weren't many clear days in Hakuba valley while I was there. When the cloud relented, the scale of this place left me awestruck. The ski resorts are big, but they barely crawl half way up the mountains beyond. This is a ski mountaineering mecca with something to offer any BC skier.

Putting ski resorts in their place (not my image).

I did some more resort skiing, but the highlight was definitely the area above the Tsugaike ski field. I was reluctant to do so, but I went with a guide (German Rob from Evergreen) for a day out. It was an excellent choice, as it helped me get some local knowledge and some practical experience with avalanche skills.

I've read enough books to know about avalanche danger, but there's nothing like getting out there and digging a pit and discussing it with someone else to really start getting your skills up.

I skied my first ever true powder - and it is a truly transcendental experience. The sensation of floating, the snow thrown off your skis...it's amazing, but also quite different to firmer snow skiing (I found my feet getting separated far too often). I did improve quickly, but I would not call myself an expert powder skier just yet.

I also jumped on an AST1 course while I was there (badly timed - the best day for BC skiing was also a day of the course!) Again, theoretically I was at that level already, but the practical training was what I lacked and appreciated most. I'll do an AST2 soon, and can recommend the course to any BC users.

After that, I got a good couple of days in above Tsugaike. There is an outstanding mix of terrain here, from low-angled trees to wind blasted alpine faces. It was pretty much the main go-to area for many people because you could ski something regardless of the conditions. There are a good variety of aspects and angles to choose from. If the avalanche danger is considerable or above, the low angled tree areas near the cat-tracks are delightful. If conditions are more stable, then you can venture out towards the steeper faces, and even the alpine peak above (Mt. Norikura).

Like any mountainous area, the more time you have there the better. Having a few weeks here would be ideal - there will be days when it's great and you get after it, and others when you might end up in a resort, or just need a rest.

Outside of the skiing, Hakuba is a pain in the arse compared to Nozawa. The place is much more spread out, but this is mitigated by some infrequent (at least I thought) shuttle bus services. I did plenty of walking around town. Not a big issue, but I was probably spoiled in Nozawa!

The other negative aspect of Hakuba is Australians. I know it's a minority, I understand that it's the actions of a few spoiling it for the many. Yes, most of us do the right thing, but it still needs to be said:

Australians are dumb, obnoxious cunts at ski resorts.

This applies in pretty much any ski field I've been to, whether it be in Australia, NZ or Japan...and this is a common impression reinforced through observation. It's a belief formed when you see things like:

- teenage boys doing the 'Aussie' chant as they ski down Happo-One

- bogans buying replica Samurai swords for decorations

- two women spending 25 minutes elaborately splitting the bill for their families' train tickets with the one station attendant, completely oblivious of and unapologetic to those of us who waited while they fucked around

- trashing hotel rooms

- a generalised sense of entitlement and lack of courtesy

- ducking ropes

Yes, these are the actions of a minority. Unfortunately though, the actions of these knobs overshadow the majority of us who quietly and politely go about our activities in places like Hakuba.

I'm still trying to work out what it is about Australian culture that makes some of us this way. Certainly binge drinking is part of it. The contrast is stark between Japan and Australia when it comes to access to alcohol - vending machines everywhere for the Japanese, restrictions on drinking in public and lock-out laws in Australia.

The other aspect might be a pretty juvenile culture where irreverence is combined with some kind of libertarian ethic. Witness the Adam Goodes saga - besides the blatant racism of booing an Indigenous player, many people seemed to participate just because someone (those 'politically-correct' wanker types) said that people shouldn't. As a result, we are left with some Australians not realising that having the right to act like a dickhead becomes a problem when it is overindulged, necessitating the types of laws Australia needs because of its bogan, juvenile culture.

Ok, so how'd we get here again?! Here's a video of some actual skiing before this gets out of hand...

Ski goals for this year

I'm going back to Japan in April for a week. I'm hoping to get some excellent ski mountaineering conditions in Hakuba. There's so much there that I'm pretty hopeful about skiing some monstrously big lines.

I'll be taking the Vectors out for their first use, along with the Beast 14 and Expedition bindings - thoughts on these items to follow.

After that, I'll be training and readying myself for the southern winter - Australia in July and August, then two weeks in NZ in September.

Team Weasel

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