Whoo hoo! Upgrade! A grin from ear to ear as the sweet girl behind the desk issues me my new boarding pass. After 10 years of chasing winter I eventually score leg room. The trip to Japan is off to a great start! Snow, food, monkeys, people and their genuine culture was on my mind… Keith sends through the snow report for Niseko and it looks fantastic! The first couple of days in Japan are filled with face shots, drops and plenty of stories of the fun filled days riding Hirafu. Wang Lei, Keith Stubbs and I rode Park while the sun was shining on Anapuri. Great to see Wang Lei again and it’s exciting to know the potential and momentum of snowboarding growth in China.
Riding through the trees is quite different to most of Europe and Canada. The Japanese White Birch are very similar to the Aspen gladed runs from the States. With little chance of being trapped in a snow-well, you could take a more direct and faster line in a brighter run. With many Japanese opting not to ride the glades and off piste, there is a huge chance of getting fresh lines through till the afternoon. There is no national Japanese avalanche qualification, in fact bombing slopes for control work is very rare and restricted to only a few places, like Hirafu. Much care is needed when riding off piste, transceiver shovel and probe were essential.
Japanese Fun Night! Hundreds of kids from Osaka made the trip to Hakuba and enjoyed the opportunity to meet and chat to Gaijin, and the feeling was mutual! As we ate dinner together they could practice their English with us along with arm wrestle and ask if I had girlfriend?!
After spending a week on Hokaido, an island with 20,000 years of history it was time to enjoy some new mountains and the towns that go with them North of Tokyo. It happened to be just short of 3 years since the Fukushima disaster, fortunately the areas we traveled to were a considerable distance from the radiation caused by the explosion. To add to that, the prevailing weather systems bought precipitation in from Russia. We were careful as could be and chose to eat foods, mainly fish that came from the north side of the Honshu.
Not to be confused with Ewoks, these furry creatures are Snow Monkeys would come down from the trees and enjoy the natural Onsen water around 42 degrees C. We too had the pleasure of bathing naked in the water, but in areas separate from the cheeky little buggers. At one point a curious one reached out and tried to grab my iphone – ha! not this time monkey. Quite surprised the bottom of the Onsen pool wasn’t littered with gopros and passports…
The food! Wow, it all lived up to my expectations… and more. Sushi Trains, Soba, Udon noodles, Shabu-shabu, Katsu Curry, and Tamagoyaki being my favorites. If it wasn’t for all the riding we were doing, customs probably would not have recognised me upon re-entry.
As we continued our road trip north of Tokyo and into Nozawa Onsen it was clear we were traveling deeper into ‘real Japan’. Minimal Gaijin and traditional villages were a pleasure to wander around. We enjoyed the Onsen baths (sometimes mixed) after a day riding. Completely starkers we would wash ourselves before bathing in pools ranging in temperature up to approximately 42 degrees. The water is so hot, the 700 hundred year old local families would channel the water through the streets to assist in snow removal.
We randomly meet up with Iain Chamberlain and with his local knowledge, pass hook ups and general stoke we had one of the most excellent mornings in Japan. Long deep runs filled with incredible terrain and unicorn magic we rode about 6km of vertical. Nozawa Onsen was one of my favorites in Japan. We needed to return the rental car by 5pm just beyond Tokyo… yeah, that wasn’t going to happen. We explained to Nissan car rental that the roads were quite snowy and we’d be late. Fortunately they didn’t charge us! After wading through the most populous metropolitan city in the world and over 13 million people, we made it to the drop-off… Only after Keith made an infamous detour through a restricted area. Whoops.
We make our way deep into the heart of Shibuya to find ‘Gary’s apartment’ we follow directions to the 23rd floor and our jaws drop. Walls were replaced by windows and presented to us incredible views of Tokyo as far as the eye can see. Glimmering lights like nothing I’d ever seen before took a while to soak in. We were in for a great night… a story for another time.
Our flights back to New Zealand went off with out a hitch and some sense of normality is beginning to sink in. Japan exceeded my expectations with the invaluable help and stoke of the friends we rode with and met along the way. Memories to last a life-time and even more proof that life is for living.