It might surprise some of you, but to snowboarders Japan is sh*t hot. It is to snowsports what Bali is to surfers (if you don’t know what that means, then let’s just say it’s kinda a big deal and known for being very, very, very, very… good). Bottomless powder, blower riding conditions and an exotic location with some of the lightest, best quality snow in the world. So why wouldn’t we “pop in” if the opportunity presented itself? With snowboard bags heaving with gear and excitement levels running high, these two snowboarders set out for the Land of the Rising Sun. Two riders, a handful of (mostly cheap) cameras, no photographers or videographers, zero heli trips and no budget for guides – this was going to be just like all those pro trips you read about in snowboard magazines in all the same ways an earthworm is just like an F16 fighter jet.
Two flights and 16 hours later we were weaving our way through the commuter traffic engulfing Tokyo’s central railway station. Somehow managing to discern where we were supposed to go from the alien script (where we were supposed to stand proving a far trickier riddle), we boarded a bullet train West, headed for Nagano. Nagano and its surrounds hosted the Winter Olympics back in 1998 and we were staying in the old athlete’s village in the alpine town of Hakuba at a place called Penke Panke: a comfortable budget ski lodge run by an affable Aussie by the name of Justin and staffed with a mix of Antipodean, European and Japanese powder hounds.
Hakuba isn’t a resort as such, but a town surrounded by mountains on all sides and home to a collection of ski hills – seven in all. Japan doesn’t have the majestic, soaring peaks of Europe or North America, but it more than makes up for it with the fluffiest, lightest snow to be found anywhere in the world. And Hakuba gets more than its fair share of it. All of which means jack if the rains arrive one week before you do and turns all that bottomless powder etc to mush. We realised our fears had proven correct once we read the dreaded phrase “Spring Conditions” on all the snow reports. Visions of sprays of snow and conditions where a snorkel would be a wise investment were replaced by ones filled with the sound of scrapping ice and the drag of slush. Ah well, best make the most of things…
And so we did. Or at least tried to. Each day we hoped against hope for some fresh snow fall but were greeted by either clear blue skies or more rainfall. So we toured the hills seeing what fun could be had in what remained of the coverage. This despite some sections of the marked runs being reduced to mud and rock, or whole bowls filled with heather. A slushy, icy day on Happo-One followed by a disappointing morning on Cortina with Justin where the rumoured last remaining pockets of powder had been reduced to wet, grabbing snow did try our patience though if I’m honest – I’m a firm believer in sitting back and appreciating where you are and what you’ve got but it’s hard to remain grateful when you’re just not having fun! Long open runs and steeps or off piste adventures down gullies and through dams should be highlights but when it’s more endure than enjoy I don’t think it’s too much to just admit you’re not having a good time.
Despite all that we did eventually come to enjoy ourselves on the slopes. Honestly, we did! Once we got our heads around the adjustment from the expected/hoped for all-time conditions to the “just having some craic at the end of the season” Spring riding it was fun. Even the aforementioned dam was at least a novelty – sliding down a thin path of snow over a gushing river and through some mammoth piping (that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mario video game) is not an everyday event, even if in our whiny state we were more concerned with making sure we didn’t drop in to the waters unannounced.
There was even, (shock, horror!) some genuine fun had! And I don’t mean the day we took off for Nagano and visited the snow monkeys* (monkeys swimming… hehe!) or the experience of an apres-ski onsen – you never forget the first time you stripped naked and sat on a child’s plastic chair to clean yourself with a hand-held shower head and bucket before taking a dip in some natural hot spring water surrounded by other (presumably naked – I didn’t think to check. Or ask) men. No, the actual boarding was fun. We found some runs that were well groomed and still had enough cover that you weren’t worrying about whether your next turn would send you tumbling over fences, rocks or small Japanese school children and later in the day even some of the icier stuff softened up.
(warning – non-boarders may want to skip the next two paragraphs!)
The highlight for me, and a genuine highlight, not just relative to the rest, was the Happo Banks snow park on Happo-One. This isn’t a “normal” snow park (though there was a good one on Happo 47 we rode too). Think of a skate park, made large and spread out over an entire slope. Sets of banks, curves, hips and jumps laid across and down the hill offering an endless combination of grinds, airs, slashes… Rather than a predetermined set of, say, rail, jump, jump, rail like the usual park line, here you can pick your own path over, through or around any feature doing whatever takes your fancy. It was the nearest thing to a natural run over man made obstacles I’ve seen because it was all about your own route and own flow through the park – a Flow Park rather than a Snow Park as I (rather geekily) came to call it. Which I proudly told everyone else, who, naturally, looked at me with a mixture of pity and disdain for getting such a kick from such an obvious play on words before patting me on the head and handing me some more sushi.
I loved the Flow P… Happo Banks park. I spent a fair bit of time there over the last few days on snow. I naturally fell in to a “routine” path that suited my riding. A few big slashes around the lips of some banks, mini jumps across the edges of others, line up a big jump over a hip edge, a smaller one over a kicker and then slide up and 180 at the top of the large wedge of snow at the bottom that served as a “Don’t go past here. There’s a cliff. You’ll die” warning/brake/barrier. It was repetitive I suppose but I tweaked bits and piece here and there as I got more comfortable and just enjoyed getting better at the different challenges. Besides, it worked – I got my biggest ever airs by far, rode faster and higher around the banked curves and just “flowed” through the whole thing better the more I relaxed. Man, it was a blast.
(Welcome back you non-boarder readers. You missed some fun stuff up there. Honest. It was awesome. But you’ve missed out on it, it’s gone now. Your loss…)
Still, that was as good as it got. We enjoyed our time in Hakuba – the food was cool, the staff at Penke Panke were great (and served up a mean breakfast), the locals and seasonaires alike were friendly and welcoming and some of the views out over the mountain ranges from the peaks were simply stunning. We even got to see a serow, a cross between a goat and an antelope that looks more like the unholy result of a bear and a wolf mating i.e. awesome. The boarding, once we got over our disappointment, was fun and just messing around on the slopes, riding for the sake of riding and not because it’s “the, like, best day ever dude!” is always a good way to spend the day. The park was exciting and fun, some of the runs were cool and the terrain itself was decent. A good time boarding.
It just wasn’t classic Japan good. But hey, that’s life. Sometimes, like our visits to Fernie or Revelstoke, you luck out and the mountains offer up some amazing riding. Others, you just have to take what you can get. A days boarding is never a day wasted. Still, despite all that I think we’ll always say we did some snowboarding while we were visiting Japan, rather than we’ve snowboarded Japan. At least until next time…
* more on this next time. For the record, Japan is awesome!