Miyagi Zao Sumikawa – DROP THE BEAR!

Zao SumikawaBased on talking to some teachers who grew up around Shiroishi I decided that my next single day trip to the mountains here in Japan was Miyagi Zao Sumikawa. I had also read that Sumikawa was known for its deep snow and back country feel. Despite having only three lifts, the summit at Sumikawa is supposed to be one of the better areas in Miyagi to snowboard. Also interestingly enough it is the only place to see the famous snow monsters on the Miyagi side of the Zao volcano cluster. If you are so inclined, here is the entire list of ski joints in all of Tohoku.

The weather here in Tohoku has been a tad temperamental. At sea level it was fluctuating between 40°F to 50°F and then down to high teens and low twenties. These wild weather swings resulted in some massive snow storms but also some, shall we say, unfavorable conditions for snowboarding or skiing.

You would think, with all the snowfall, the conditions would be good. However after assaulting Japan for the better part of two weeks with snow storms that paralyzed many of the major cities, the weather cleared up and was unseasonably warm for a couple days. Thus a thaw-freeze went into effect. At the summit of Sumikawa this created a solid sheet of ice and then covered it the following weekend with about 3 inches of snow. I thought with the fresh snow, “conditions should be pretty good.”

Zao SumikawaI was wrong. Really wrong. You might say that I, “Dropped the Bear.”

My day at Sumikawa was rough. Mostly spent recovering from severe slips as my board scraped all the fresh snow off the ice and refused to give me an edge as if it had never been sharpened. I felt like a baby deer. This was compounded by a couple other major issues with the resort.

The first is that, aside from two runs that the top, the entire place is basically cat tracks up the mountain. There is only 300 meters of vertical at Sumikawa and almost all of that vertical is between the top and bottom of lift 1. The remaining grade is roughly 7° to 12°. Also at the top, all but one of the runs, requires a hike.

Second, the park rats love this place. Not a bad thing by itself but lift 3 ran to the top of the terrain park and nearly everyone who had come to resort was spending their time there. Which means a long line at a place that shouldn’t have one. It looked like it might have been fun if you like landing on your ass.

park rats

park rats

Third the price and the timing is really off. The bus leaves the Sendai area at 8:30AM and arrives at 10:30AM after making multiple stops in the mountain town below Sumikawa. The return trip leaves at 3:30PM. If the snow is good, this is not nearly long enough for 4800円.  For the same price you can get to Eboshi earlier and stay longer, have more lifts and better vertical.

Finally the biggest issue I had with this place is that it could have been awesome. Like really awesome. The terrain at the top was amazing except for the fact that it was covered in a thick sheet of hockey rink. If it had been deep powder snow – “oh man,” Clay Davis is right, that’s how I felt, too.

Sumikawa is intriguing because there are almost no man made barriers or boundary markers. Let it fly. Go wherever. Want to go down that gully? Done and DONE. As long as you can walk when you get to the bottom. No worries. Just, whatever you do, under any circumstance, with extreme prejudice…

DO NOT Drop the Bear.

Check out my other snowboarding adventures: Hakuba Goryu, Niseko, Happo-one, Zao Eboshi, Spring Valley

To and Frozen – Hokkaido’s Chuo Bus Reviewed

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

Buses are boring. There is nothing wrong with being a boring bus. In fact, I prefer boring to say… life threatening. Talking about buses is also pretty boring. However I have somethings I think you should know about Chuo Bus in Hokkaido.

Chuo bus is very convenient (kind of).

I took 4 trips (2 round trips) on a Chuo bus. We took the bus from Tomakomai ferry port to JR Sapporo Station. Then I also took the Chuo bus from JR Sapporo to Niseko Hirafu and back. Two very different trips but essentially the same things to say. To get from the ferry terminal to JR Sapporo there are four bus pick up times posted outside at the stop. You can take an express train that goes from JR Tomakomai to Sapporo but its nearly double the price of the bus and you have to transfer from the bus to the train anyway. Might as well stay on the bus. In this respect the bus was very convenient.

Riding to Niseko was also very convenient. The bus leaves from JR Sapporo twice in the morning 7:55AM and 8:55AM and arrives at Hirafu just before lunch. The price is very reasonable at 3100円 round trip. There is a large customer service desk that opens at 7:30AM in Sapporo Station to pay for tickets and book numerous other excursions offered by Chuo bus. They also offer services that leave direct from the airport to Hirafu but I did’t explore that option because we took the ferry.

Customer Service

Customer Service

Now the inconvenient elements. Their website is terrible and almost 100% in Japanese. There is an English site seeing page but the ski link goes back to the Japanese page. The bus to Niseko requires a reservation and during peak season you may need one as it might sell out. However, my bus was mostly empty and I left on a Friday morning in peak season. Like Keio bus terminal in Shinjuku there was a massive LED readout listing trips and availability on it. My guess is that even without a reservation if you got to the station at 7:30AM right when the ticket counter opens you could get a seat on the bus to Niseko. I didn’t try that because I had someone call for me and book it in Japanese. There are 3 other main bus services that all make trips to Niseko and when I was at Niseko I saw even more buses that I didn’t find online. White Liner has the best website and you can book in English. The other services are Donan (Japanese only) and Resort Liner (English). Chuo does NOT offer online reservations because, I have no idea.

ski page for Chuo bus

ski page for Chuo bus

Style, Comfort or Both?

I can assure you these busses were completely lacking in style, but were comfortable enough. I wouldn’t take Chuo overnight somewhere as they were pretty standard fare and didn’t have any of the extra sleeping  “comforts” you get with a Willer bus. They did have regular sized cup holders which I thought was nice. The ride from Tomakomai to Sapporo and back was fraught with my largest complaint about buses in Japan, they are too warm. Inside the bus it was blistering and outside it was just normal cold weather for Hokkaido. The bus to Niseko didn’t seem to have this problem. Not sure why but I was wearing snowboard gear and it didn’t feel overly hot to me.

The in-crowd?

The buses we took were all about half full save the bus 3:30PM bus from Sapporo Station to Tomakomai. That bus was jam packed. They even had to bust out the jumper seats to fit everyone. It was a sardine can. Not surprisingly, a super crowded bus can result in a relatively uncomfortable ride. Was it worth paying double to take the train? Probably not, and there is no guarantee that the train would be any less crowded. Plus, once you get to Tomakomai, you still have to take the bus to the ferry terminal.

Something strange also happened at the bus terminal in Sapporo. The guy loading the luggage told me I couldn’t put my bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. His reason, “PASOCOM! PASOCOM.” For those of you not familiar with English words remade into Japanese words, this sounds just like the way it’s spelled: complete gibberish. After about three times of trying to hand the guy my bag we finally figured out that he was telling us laptops can’t go under the bus. Why? Who knows. After we informed him it was just clothes in my bag, he changed to normal polite Japanese, “ONEGAISHIMASU!” It was weird. The Japanese are incredibly paranoid about lithium-ion batteries but this was out of the ordinary. As if all the lithium ion batteries in cell phones, iPads, mp3 players, and laptops are some how less dangerous when raised more than a meter off the ground.

Bus drop off in Niseko

Bus drop off in Niseko

Chuo bus is very inexpensive to get around Hokkaido and it goes almost everywhere a gung-ho tourist would want to go. However, you may hit a language barrier here and there and if something requires reservations you may have to phone a friend. For skiing or boarding I thought the Chuo bus was by far the best option with the best available times. It leaves early enough to get in a solid half day when you arrive in Niseko and leaves late enough that you can have two solid days and only pay for one night in a hotel.

Niseko – A pinnacle of powder

I’ll admit it. I’m a little arrogant when it comes to ski resorts. I grew up near Lake Tahoe, CA and my father got me started at age 6 on a pair of rental skis. My spur of the moment ski trips were to places like Heavenly, Squaw Valley and Kirkwood. Lake Tahoe doesn’t have the world’s greatest snow or most vertical feet, but its steep, deep and full of variety.  I’ve skied at Mt. Baker, Snowbird, Mt. Bachelor and Happo-one as well (read about my Hakuba trip herehere and here). I thought I was pretty spoiled.

Then, I went to Niseko. Now I am really spoiled.

Niseko

you can't tell but there is a huge smile on my face

you can’t tell but there is a huge smile on my face

The snow in Niseko, as any ski travel site will tell you, is absolutely legendary. I read once that a lot of foreigners think that the Japanese word for powder snow is, “niseko,” because the resort has become synonymous with great snow. It’s not likely I can add anything to the conversation by telling you about how the Gobi Desert and the Sea of Japan make freaky weather-love and science together to create soft dry fluffy powder that falls at world record rates. I won’t tell you that boarding through Niseko snow is like flying, even when it’s tracked out. I’m not going to tell you about any of that.

I spent nearly two full days there and I can say it was some of the best boarding in my life. It wasn’t simply the snow, it was more than that. The variety at Niseko (if you buy the more expensive all resort pass, WHICH I DID) is awesome. There is so much to do, plenty of reasonably steep runs but more over any of the diamond runs that run from the uppermost lifts allow you to get pretty much anywhere on the mountain. There are banked gully runs (like a natural half pipe with TREES!), wide open bowls, tree runs, groomed runs, trick parks, and so much intermediate and easy stuff that I don’t think you could ski the whole place in three full days. And that’s not even counting back country.

It's always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

It’s always in your field of vision, when you can see it.

The view on a sunny day at Niseko is absolutely incredible as well. Yotei-san, which is affectionately referred to as “Kita-Fuji” (North Fuji), is a slightly smaller version of the famous Fuji-san, a perfectly conical volcano that basically fills your entire field of vision. It reminded me of old school racing arcade games like, Cruisin U.S.A., where the background is static and never changes. Sadly I was still having issues with my Contour camera because Apple hates backwards compatibility on non-Apple peripherals. So, I don’t have any awesome powder videos with Yotei in the background. You’ll have to take my word for it.

(watch the clouds, they never move – that’s what Yotei-san is like as you go down the mountain)

But like I said earlier, it wasn’t the snow, the variety, or the view that made Niseko so mind-blowingly awesome. I loved it because it was quiet. For being the most popular mountain in Hokkaido and maybe in Japan, and the dearth of Aussies that take over the town at night not-with-standing, the mountain itself was peaceful. For a solitary skier or boarder it made the experience that much more memorable.

Despite being a holiday weekend, I only had to wait in line once. Once. I can’t remember ever not waiting in a line at Northstar on a holiday weekend. Off the lift there were groups of people picking their lines but there are so many runs, I just had to pick the one they didn’t. Finally to really get your money’s worth, being able to get right back on lift after a run is great, provided you aren’t marooned in shoulder deep powder somewhere. I was struck constantly by being alone on the hill even though I knew the place was crowded. I could see other skiers and boarders but they might as well have been on another planet. There is a lot of space to spread out and make the most of the fresh pow, the stunning view, and the variety of Niseko.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Another shot of Yotei-san from the summit.

Something else occurred to me, do I like boarding with others or can I do board all by myself? I’m still not sure. Sometimes when you do really awesome stuff you want to make sure others saw it because, “That was awesome, did you see that!?” When you board on your own there is never any arguing about what run to take and wasting time not boarding. Plus singles get through the lines faster. Experiences are sometimes better when you share them with others and in general I prefer company to being alone but with snowboarding, I haven’t made up my mind.

Enough philosolophisizing, the G2 gate to the summit of An’nupuri-Niseko ranks at least in the top three runs of my life; along with conquering, “The Wall” at Kirkwood and doing the summit run at Mt. Bachelor. It starts with an “easy” 20 minute hike to the summit and then you drop into a powder filled bowl that funnels you into a 2 to 3km gully which then spits you out through a birch and cedar forest that could a set piece from Game of Thrones, eventually shooting out near the Nook restaurant at the base of the An’nupuri Resort.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Speaking of restaurants, my only complaint about Niseko, and it’s a minor one, is that the food was too expensive. At least at the Nook it was. That was the only place I ate at (on the mountain). I had become accustomed to the great value offered by the restaurants in Japanese ski resorts but the Nook was more like American ski resort pricing. Hot tea was 400円 and my small beef bowl was 1,000円. Big beers were 1,050円. The food prices were a minor inconvenience for such an awesome place to snowboard.

This hot dog stand was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain.

Hokkai-dog was great and inexpensive compared to the Nook, but its not on the mountain. +1 for the pun.

Getting to Niseko is actually easier than it looks considering its relative distance from Sapporo. There are four main bus companies that all operate daily service from both Sapporo Station and from New Chitose Airport. Some bus packages include round trip and your lift ticket. During the busy season they can get booked up so definitely make reservations if you can. If not you can check out my review of Chuo Bus here for more details (Coming Soon).

Niseko is a fantastic place to spend a week or more going up to the top of the mountain and back down again but it will be expensive. Accomodations and food in the area are not cheap. Is it worth it? If you love skiing or snowboarding, totally. I will have to find my way back eventually. Save your coin and get up to Hokkaido for some of the best boarding in the world.

Ski and Snowboard Resort List – Tohoku

It has been difficult for me to find a comprehensive list of ski resorts in Japan, in English, with functioning links.

Until now…

Well, for Tohoku at least. I have finished a massive project, organizing all of my snowboarding research into 6 spreadsheets (SPREADSHEETS ARE SO INTERESTING) that you can sort with links to all the active websites I could find (websites which, unfortunately, are mostly in Japanese).

Zao Eboshi

If you have solid Japanese skills or the patience to use your web browser’s translate function you can use Snoway.com, my most frequented source for information but Snoway is still incomplete. Also, before you hop in a car or on a train, I would verify directly with the ski resort that they are actually still in business. Post 2011, many of these places have had trouble getting skis and boards on the mountain and tourism in general is depressed all around Tohoku, particularly in Miyagi and Fukushima.

Spring Valley - IzumiThese lists are not complete. Many of the ski resorts in Japan are small municipal parks with or family owned. My research method consisted of cross referencing wikipedia.jp, snoway.com, snowjapan.comskijapan.com and area searches on google maps. It is likely that I missed a small resort or two. If you know of any that aren’t on the list that are cool and worth checking out please send them along or leave the info in the comments. More over, I have included ski trail map links to the larger places.

All that being said, this is likely the most comprehensive list you will find in English.

MIYAGI – You can check out my in depth reviews of Zao Eboshi Zao Sumikawa and Spring Valley.

Trail Maps: Zao EboshiZao SumikawaZao ShiroishiZao ShichikashukuSpring Valley

YAMAGATA

Trail Maps: Zao OnsenYonezawa – RitsukoTengendaiAsahigatakeJangle Jungle

IWATE

Trail Maps: Appi-KogenShizukuishiHachimantaiGeto8OkunakayamaAmari OnsenIwate KogenHiraniwa

AKITA

Trail Maps: Tazawako – JeunesseOpas TaiheizanDaisen Odai

AOMORI

Trail Maps: Naqua ShirokamiOwaniMoya Hills – Hakkouda

FUKUSHIMA

Trail Maps: Alts Bandai – Inawashiro – Takatsue – Numajiri – Hatoriko – Daikura – Minowa – Nekoma – Takahata – Nango – Grand Sunpia – Adatarakogen

There you go. I hope you get out on the mountain and shred some serious pow!

If you want to the whole list in in excel format: Tohoku Snow Project

Miyagi Zao Eboshi – In the long run…

In the Miyagi area the snow resorts tend to be on the small side. Smaller mountains, lower elevations, less chair lifts and lower prices than what I was used to California. Zao Eboshi is similar but for one key element. From the top of the resort to the bottom there is a 4,300m run. You must be asking yourself, “How does a resort with a maximum elevation of 1,350 meters have a run that is longer than the distance from the peak of Mt. Fuji to the bottom?” The answer is simple. It’s flat.

Zao EboshiThere are three maybe four decently steep sections of Eboshi. The furthest left lift off of the main gondola (if you are facing the mountain) will take you all the way to the top of the resort. From there, right before the mogul field you can cut over to your right and there is a good steep section of un-groomed snow there (2-3 on the course guide). I would not recommend going off piste near the top as the chairs are about head height. Also from the top is the start of the 4,300 meter run which winds its way down the left side of the mountain if you are facing East. About a quarter of the way down, to the right there is an off shoot that has a short diamond run (1-3) that is the steepest area of the mountain. From there you can circle back around to the a single seat lift at the bottom of the run. As you exit the single chair lift, to your right there is a decent area for tree skiing. I saw others going out that way and that slope leads back to the gondola house. Finally there is run 10. It has a Japanese name but… yeah it’s number 10. Run number 10 was my favorite run. It was challenging, it had terrain, it was decently steep in parts and had deep snow.

Anything besides those three areas is basically a green run. A beginner snowboarder may have some serious trouble if they are unable to maintain speed through long flat and slightly uphill sections of the lower half of the mountain and the 4,300m run. The run that spits out directly in to the gondola entrance is mild but has a decent grade if you made it there from 1,000m run of flat traverse that precedes it. There are two parks for the tricksters, a small one on the top half of the mountain and a large one on the bottom half.Zao Eboshi

Getting to Zao Eboshi is an absolute breeze. There is a bus that for 4,800円 includes round trip fare and an all day lift ticket. You must make reservations a day in advance, I was able to make the reservation in English. The girl on the other end didn’t speak it well, but she was able to understand me. It leaves Sendai station at 8:00AM and also has pickups at Izumi-chuo and Nagamachi-minami stations. The bus pick up isn’t too obvious at Sendai station. Common sense would tell you it would be near the other buses, but this is wrong. It’s actually to the left of the taxi stand on the first floor, West exit, door 13. The bus arrives around 9:30 giving you the majority of the day to ski or board. The return trip from the resort leaves the mountain at 4:30 (16:30). You pay your whole fair on the bus in cash and the nice lady will give you a lift ticket when you leave the bus. If you are south of Sendai this resort is easier to get to than Spring Valley and less money if you can take the bus (or drive). If you are north of Sendai, I would head to Spring Valley instead because they are basically the same ski resort.

For being a Saturday the place was not very busy, which was awesome. I never had to wait longer than a minute or so to get on any lift. There are also three resorts of similar size within a few minutes drive of each other, so that may help spread out the crowds. The other resorts are Miyagi Zao Sumikawa, Miyagi Zao Shiroishi and Miyagi Zao Shichikashuku. Storage King Noble’s Headgear (literal translation of Zao Eboshi’s name) suffers from one major issue and two minor ones. The major issue is that their lifts are too long and slow. I consistently found myself thinking that for as short as the good runs were, I was spending a lot of time in the lift. While I was on the lift I kept thinking, “this is inordinately slow.” Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want the lifts to go too fast. The single seat lift seemed to the quickest turn around with the best run.

always with the moguls...

always with the moguls…

The first minor issue is that two of the three best runs were closed for the later half of a Saturday. One closure was for a competition. One of the better runs was open all day but there was a slalom course school going on. I shouldn’t complain about a closure for safety but I’m going to anyway. The number 6 run has a steep drop into a crevice that acts as a natural half pipe with turns. They gated it off in the afternoon because it got too warm and the snow wasn’t holding. The other minor issue was weather related. In the late afternoon some cloud cover rolled in and immediately the top half of the mountain became an ice skating rink instead of a ski runs. I had read as much on some other sites like snowjapan and ski japan but it seems to be a consistent problem at Eboshi.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have yet to see a “bowl” at any of the Japanese resorts thus far, something I quite liked in Lake Tahoe. The boarding hasn’t been bad and the snow has been relatively good. Even at Happo-one which is my favorite thus far, I wasn’t really blown away. Eboshi’s 4,300m run was plastered all over the ski resort. The ideal of Japanese skiing is either destroying your knees on moguls or cruising along at leisurely pace for extended periods of time. Both of these things are not great for snowboarders. On skis it’s not that bad, but when snowboarding it can be a real drag to get stuck on a long flat area and have to hoof it out to the nearest grade. My advice for Zao Eboshi is to maintain speed and go to the steep stuff early before it closes.

Hakuba, Japan – A pricey winter getaway.

Hakuba has earned it status as an ideal winter getaway in Japan partly due to its Olympic history, its regular snowfall and its atmosphere. Mostly popular with Australians, you’re more likely to hear “G’day,” than, “Konnichiwa,” walking around Hakuba city. Like many resort towns, there are numerous money pits with which to throw your hard earned money into, outside of snowboarding or skiing being terribly expensive hobbies.

Hakuba at just before sunrise

Hakuba at just before sunrise

Getting to and from Hakuba is best done by bus, as there are no direct trains. The price of the shinkansen ticket to Nagano city will be astronomical on top of 3 hours of regular train fare to arrive in Hakuba. From Narita, Haneda and Shinjuku, Tokyo there are multiple bus services that offer 10,000円 round trip tickets to Hakuba. You can read more about Keio Dentetsu bus service here, which is what I used.

Probably the biggest money drain in Hakuba are taxis. If you recall from our summer vacation posts, taxis in Japan are expensive. A trip from Hakuba station to your hotel could run you between 2,000円 and 3,000円 on the low end. Not to mention there aren’t really enough cabs in peak season for everyone staying Hakuba, so there is usually a wait. In the ice and snow the cabs are constantly slipping and spinning their wheels which we surmised also increased the cab fare, but have no idea by how much. The expensive cab fare compounds with the fact that regardless of the time of day, convenient public transportation is nearly non-existent.

hakuba BnBThere is a train line that has 3 major stops in Hakuba: Iimori station, Hakuba station and Shinanomoriue station. However one glance at the time table for the Oito line and you will defer to other methods of transport. Moreover, the train line in Hakuba isn’t really anywhere near most of the resorts. We stayed just West of Iimori station and it wasn’t a bad walk to the Bn’B, but it was impossible to get to Iimori station by train between 12:30PM and 3:00PM without taking the train 3 stops North to go one stop South.

As far as buses go, there are a couple different “options.” If you are staying within the center of Hakuba, near either Happo town or Echoland, there is a free shuttle, IF and only if, you have skiing or snowboard gear. The free shuttles work in a loop and spoke system through the center of town focusing on hotels and the Happo town information center and stop running around 5PM. There is only one shuttle in the morning from Hakuba station (8:05AM) and it is not really at the station, it picks up across the street from a travel agency here. Some of the nicer hotels will run their own shuttles but be prepared to be confined to the area you stay in unless you are heading to the mountain itself or the Happo-town information center, the only two places with regular bus stops at regular intervals throughout the day, if you are skier or boarder.

The second bus is called the Genki Go bus, it is 300円 per person, one way and has the most stops of any bus in Hakuba, even going all the way down to Iimori area for a couple pick up spots. However, it only comes 3 times an evening at the further out spots and stops running between 9PM and 10PM. So if you want to stay out late and enjoy the night life of Happo or Echoland, you’re taking a taxi back to the hotel or walking.

Since we stayed in Iimori, we were subject to some of the worst of the transportation difficulties that would have been alleviated by staying in a more central location. Our room and board was quite cheap as far as resort towns go (3,500円 per night) but the cafe where we stayed had maybe the most expensive beer in all of Japan. 500円 for a small Asahi was a little steep but since Iimori is at the far south end of town there wasn’t really anywhere else to sit around the fire and have a beer. Not that our hostel had a fire anyway.

It’s become an expectation, particularly in the US and Australia that food and drink ON the mountain is going to be costly. They got you by the short hairs, who wants to leave the mountain and carry their gear around when they could eat right here by the lift? One of the most pleasant surprises in Japan is that food on the mountain in Hakuba was actually cheaper than food in the town. For about 1300円 I got a massive plate of curry and a beer at 47 & Goryu, although we can argue the intelligence of getting a curry while snowboarding, you can’t argue with the price. It’s not cheap but its not insane like the $12 to $15 you pay at a place like Northstar at Tahoe for an awful hamburger. At Happo-one it was even less expensive. For 1000円 I got a massive bowl of ramen and a side of rice, later I bought a 500mL beer for 500円. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, food off the mountain: Dig deep, it’s pricey. Everywhere we went, particularly drink prices were in the 600円 to 1000円 range and even small plates were hard to come by for less than           600円.

Luckily we met some friends to help us find a decently priced izakaya but still managed to spend a boatload because, well, we ate too much. DUCK YAKITORI. I REPEAT, DUCK YAKITORI. Anyways, food is expensive, particularly in Happo-town and at the base of the mountain. Places like Uncle Steven’s were jam packed, with an hour plus wait to sit, relatively small portions  and a bill that will run you at least 3,000円 a person. Most places were really busy but that’s peak season in a resort town anywhere in the world.izakaya in Hakuba

onsen hakuba

Juuronoyu

There are many onsens in the Hakuba area and I tried to enjoy the local onsen in Iimori called Juuronoyu (十郎の湯). Thankfully we had a coupon to use that brought the price down but as onsens go Juuronoyu was a little pricey (although the beer was cheaper there than it was the bed and breakfast we stayed at). On an unrelated but equally annoying note to exorbitant costs, my nice towel was stolen at the onsen. Theft, particularly petty theft, is highly uncommon in Japan, especially outside of the major cities. The fact that my wallet, hotel key, clothes and wedding ring were all left unmolested but my towel vanished made me think someone just forgot their towel and thought mine would do. Never mind that onsens are nude public baths and there aren’t spare towels just lying around. Luckily I had walked down there with a linguist from Reno who was fluent in Japanese, and he was able to get me two small towels as gifts from the onsen. To this day, I can’t get over having my towel stolen from the locker room of trust that is an onsen. I even stuck around the onsen a while to see if anyone was stupid enough to toss their ill gotten gain over their shoulders on their way out. Sadly, my revenge will have to wait.

My opinion of Hakuba is like a gemini horoscope, two sided. It may be stupid to expect anything else other than highway robbery when staying in a resort town. That’s fair, I understand. It doesn’t mean I have to like it or think its cool. The snowboarding was fantastic. Some of the best I have had. Still not on par with Snowbird, Mt. Bachelor or Kirkwood but it was certainly better than most. If you head to Hakuba, be prepared to be milked for all your worth, and for that matter make sure you really enjoy the snow because you’ll be paying for it.

Two days at Happo-one Winter Resort – Hakuba, Japan

Hakuba Panorama

Since I watched the 1998 Nagano Olympics I had wanted to ski in Japan. I was still too young in 1994 for the Lillehammer games to have much effect on me. The ’96 summer games in Atlanta and the ’98 winter games had a lasting effect on me and my fondness for sport. Recently, the dream of skiing (although transmorgrified to snowboarding) in Nagano, Japan came true with my trip Hakuba. I spent three days shredding some of the best snow in Japan and my favorite of those days were at Happo-one. Hint: you can look less like a bumbling tourist if you remember to pronounce it Happo Ouneh, not Happo “1.” It wasn’t a revelation that Happo would be a great place to board, as it is considered one of the top five places in all of Japan to engage in winter activities. Anyway you slide down the hill, Happo-one is world class.

Despite the aforementioned propensity of Japanese resorts for large mogul fields, the crew at Happo divided many of the more difficult runs in to half and half. Nearly all of the runs are wide enough to accommodate a regular groomed run and a mogul area which, as a snowboarder I found to be a great benefit. There is also tremendous amount of variety at Happo, from super long intermediate runs that link the whole mountain together to a Riesen Grat course with a stunning view and some out of bounds boarding that goes right back to the lift. Depending on what is open, there are 24 total lifts at Happo, some runs that were decently steep but a majority of the runs are easy going and most boarders should be able to handle them without too much trouble. Click here for the Happo-one trail map.

white out happoMy first day there was pretty limited due to weather. Happo is known for being a tad temperamental weather wise. The top half of the mountain was closed in the morning and in the afternoon when they opened the lifts, the visibility was still so low that it was impossible to see more than fifteen meters downhill. I stayed below the cloud cover for most of that day and enjoyed right hand side of the mountain until I tried to make a final run from the peak down to the main gondola. The visibility was still so bad at about 3:30PM that I ended up on the exact opposite side of the mountain from where I had wanted to go. Whoops.

The next day on the other hand was mostly pure “blue bird” after some heavy snowfall over night. I was so absolutely stoked to get to the hill first thing in the morning that I walked to the lift from Hakuba station instead of waiting for the bus. I got there at 7:20AM for the first gondola up and I managed to get six nearly untouched runs in before people started to invade the privacy of my own private snowboarding fantasy. I got to the top lift without ever waiting and managed to slice some freshies into the off-piste area before it got really tracked up later in the afternoon.

Off the Riesen Grat course at the top is a small out of bounds area that was also the sight of a most spectacular fail-turned-awesome. I was going at full clip when my front toe edge caught in a deep pile, causing me to cartwheel head over lead foot. As I came through the second rotation of the tumble, the back of my board stuck into the powder like a shovel. It stuck in so deep that it suspended me standing up, perpendicular, my board angling out at nearly 90° to the slope. I was so impressed with my accidental landing that I had to laugh and take a deep breath before I could keep going down the run.

Happo screen grabThis is also where I have to register a minor complaint with Happo-one. The exit to the top most lift has some of the best views of the area at around 6,000 ft. and on a really nice day it can be crowded with skiers and boarders who don’t know it at the time, but are going to have a rough go of it to get down. There are only three ways to get off the top: out of bounds, olympic caliber mogul field, or chair lift. Needless to say, the top of the run was riddled with people just standing around trying to figure out what to do with their current predicament or collecting stuff from their most recent “yard sale.” It says on their website that this is an intermediate course, but then has a double black diamond next to it… soooooo, yeeeeeahh.

The food on the mountain was excellent, I stopped and had ramen around 10:30AM, hoping to beat the lunch rush and then be on the mountain when everyone was taking a break. There is also a cafe just outside the top of the Alpine quad with decent coffee and cheap muffins. No ski resort’s food or drink is ever reasonably priced but despite being a world famous destination, Happo was relatively inexpensive in the beer and food department. 500¥ for a big beer is a pretty good price, all things considered.

I didn’t stay near the base of Happo, but I can tell you that area around the base seemed to have the most going on. If you can afford to stay in the hotels and ryokan in the Happo or Echoland area of Hakuba, I would recommend it. If you stay outside of that area, there is a free shuttle for skiers and snowboarders only that picks up at various locations throughout the city. Three different lifts at the base of Happo-one offer walking access from most of of the close hotels, but as I said earlier I walked from Hakuba station without too much effort.

local brew

local brew

As I was affixing my new 白馬八歩尾根 sticker to my snowboard, I made mental note of just how cool I felt having boarded there. Snowboarding is not a cheap hobby or an easy one, but I’m glad I made the most of this opportunity. For all of the difficulties in getting to around Hakuba without a car, and for that matter getting there from Sendai, it was totally worth it.

Now, if I could just talk Shana into believing that falling down a lot, being cold, and getting wet is really fun…