I was naked, sitting on a stone bench in a pool of hot water in the basement of our hotel, surrounded by three drunk Japanese men and my father-in-law. They were naked too. Perhaps you have read about onsens in other stories about Japanese skiing? This is the reality of those onsens: a bunch of naked people sitting around on cloud nine after a powder day, often tipsy, in our case trying, futilely, to communicate across a language barrier that felt like the Pacific Ocean.
After many throwaway sentences on both sides and a lot of puzzled looks and laughter, the drunkest of the three patriots managed to get across that he really likes skiing Shiga Kogen, a valley that includes 19 ski areas on the Japanese main island of Honshu. Shiga Kogen happened to be where we were sitting at that very moment. He was from the city, and he had come to Shiga, as he often does, to escape his official life. He was very happy to be there. So was I.
I will put this out there now so we can get on with the story: Skiing in Japan is worth it. Time, money, whatever the sacrifice requires. There is something about the way the lifestyle plays out over there. And the snow—believe every whiff of the hype, as hard as that sounds.
To be frank, it gets old hearing about other people’s perfect, chamber-of-commerce-arranged ski trips. I have been on some that are so well programmed and guaranteed, it feels illegal in a way. Like you’re cheating life.
This one was completely different, and much more gratifying. We winged it from start to finish.
It started when my wife Larissa’s parents decided to live in Tokyo for the year. Her mom, a professor, grew up in Japan in the ’60s, which was still a touchy time to be an American there. Twice in the past six years, she has taken a year-long job at Waseda University in Tokyo, and my wife’s dad has joined her. Each time, we have flown over to visit them at their small apartment in a Tokyo neighborhood called Takadanobaba.
This year, since we would be there in February, we figured we might as well bring our skis. We ended up skiing five of the 10 days we were in Japan. On the front end, after two days in Tokyo, we hopped a domestic flight north to Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido.
I was still thinking about Tokyo when we got to Sapporo. If you ever doubt how vast our society is, and how many faces and shapes contribute to the human race, go to Tokyo. I get so cozy in my insulated mountain-town world that I forget what it feels like to be a minority. Tokyo is home to more than 20 million people, the majority of whom look and speak nothing like me. Being there reminds me how small we all are. We need those reminders to keep our priorities straight.
After landing in Sapporo, Larissa and I took a bus to Niseko, the epicenter of Japanese powder skiing. We got there at 3 p.m. It was puking fat, dry flakes that floated by like miniature parachutes. We stashed our baggage, both figuratively and literally, in the hostel and hurried to the closest ticket window, where five hours of skiing cost $35. We skied thigh-deep powder in the trees until it got too dark to distinguish each other from the tree trunks.
It just so happened that our trip overlapped with that of a friend from Colorado, Andy, who lives in Lyons and spends a few weeks each winter in Japan. We figured this out totally by chance, and he showed up the next morning with a rented SUV, having just returned from Daisetsuzan National Park, where he and a local girl named Rie had spent a few days backcountry skiing and camping in the SUV.
Rie, a cook at the Black Diamond Lodge who was living in an attic with some local ski guides, had to work. So Andy, Larissa and I set out for a ski area called Rusutsu across the valley. The only problem with our plan was that to reach Rusutsu, we had to drive halfway around a prodigious volcano called Yotei, all the while staring at prime ski lines spilling off its face.
We tried to ignore it, but right when we were most vulnerable, we saw a sign for the trailhead to Yotei. We made a momentary and unanimous decision to turn, forgoing chairlifts for serenity.
Gnarly wind, slabby snow and wind chills well below zero kept us from summiting the 6,200-foot dome, so we spent the day lapping Yotei’s birch flanks in 10 inches of new snow. At one point we crossed paths with an old, crooked-toothed Japanese man on outdated telemark gear. He was very particular about his skintrack; if he disagreed with the angle of our track, even by a few degrees, he’d set his own.
We stopped to put on our shells and he passed us, explaining in broken English that he lives in a nearby town and skis the volcano once a week. A minute after he passed, we heard a muffled cry uphill. We found him wallowing upside down six feet below the surface in a bizarre and alarming hole. We later learned that the entire snowpack, particularly on south-facing slopes, often shifts up to 10 or 12 feet at random times, exposing gaping crevasses that run to the ground and can swallow unsuspecting skiers. More than a few people have died in such holes.
It’s not the only danger on the volcano. That afternoon, we bumped into a friend of Andy’s named Kenji, who said a group of seven Australians had been skiing a large chute adjacent to our birch run last week when one of them triggered an avalanche. The slide carried the man 3,300 vertical feet down a corkscrew path and left him partially buried with two broken femurs. A local firefighter nearby heard his wails and called for a helicopter, which evacuated the man and likely saved his life.
Rie joined us the following day at Rusutsu. She spoke little English and Andy spoke even less Japanese, but they both spoke just enough Spanish to get by. So that’s how they communicated — in Spanglapanese. It was wonderfully hilarious to listen to, but it also reminded me that precise exchanges are a luxury, not a necessity. Affection is a medium all its own.
On our way home from Rusutsu after a day of empty tree runs in the kind of powder no one likes to hear about if they weren’t there, Rie took us to a natural spring to fill up our water bottles, then to the local tofu factory next door. I must have sampled 20 different kinds of tofu, all perfectly soft and delicious, made with the same water I’d just put in my bottle. That night we got drunk at an onsen then found a tucked-away restaurant and ate sashimi on our knees until we felt like bloated seals. It was one of the few meals where I actually knew what everything was when I ate it.
Upon our return to Tokyo, we met up with Larissa’s parents and hopped a trolley down to a city bus station, which was buzzing with teenagers at midnight. Our trip to Shiga Kogen, on the cost-effective “Night Bus,” coincided with a college break, and hundreds of local students were on their way to the mountains. Almost none of them brought skis or snowboards; most simply wanted to sit in the onsens and socialize.
Japan being Japan, it snowed a foot the first day we were there. Larissa’s dad, Rich, prefers to ski groomers; we were more interested in powder. The resorts don’t rope off the trees, but threatening signs at each point of entry make it sound like a demilitarized zone: “Backcountry skiing is strictly prohibited!”
Our best guess after lapping the untouched forest all morning is that the patrollers don’t like rescuing people from the trees, and if you scare everyone away, you won’t have to. We soon turned our attention to the lines under the chairlift since they also had not been touched. This backfired when an enraged attendant stopped the lift, shouted something over the loudspeaker, then stormed out of his shack in rubber farm boots and lambasted Larissa (presumably) for dropping into the virgin snow. I pretended not to hear him and kept skiing downhill, my pang of guilt no match for the face shots.
We caught the Night Bus home to Takadanobaba after another day of breaking the rules reluctantly but without regret. I had a difficult time making sense of the experience over the next few weeks. The powder was one thing. If everyone on earth were able to ski that snow, we might well have world peace (especially if they were on fat skis).
But it went much deeper than the powder. You know how people say you can find just as much adventure in your backyard as you can halfway around the world? Well, that is probably true, especially in Colorado. But the very nature of being halfway around the world brings clarity and perspective you can’t find in your backyard, because it doesn’t exist there.
Devon O’Neil is a writer based in Breckenridge, Colorado. Find more of his work at devononeil.com.