The First Time I Went… | Skiing In Japan

After dreaming about it from afar, Daisy Maddinson reflects on her very first taste of Japanese powder

Featured Image: Sam Ingles

JAPOW. A word banded around like Brexit’s going out of fashion. But also, as it turns out, an accurate word-blend for somewhere that is undoubtably the powder mecca of the world. No longer a best kept secret, Japan’s bottomless powder and endless tree runs hold prime position on most skier’s bucket list.

Japan’s ski industry has snowballed with the rise of social media and affordable international flights. With storms from the Sea Of Japan driving huge snowfalls (on average 15m + per year), it’s obvious why. Tales of deep turns, whisky fuelled nights and unlimited sushi are both the dream and reality of many a weary-legged skier here.

“JAPOW. A word branded around like Brexit’s going out of fashion”

Far removed from sharp European Alps, the idea of chest deep snow and mystical lands had become an obsession of mine too. So when a friend asked me if I wanted to join their trip last minute, I did what any powder hungry skier would do; begged my boss for time off, borrowed a better jacket and booked an impromptu ticket to Japan’s North Island in the pursuit of unlimited powder refills, insane skiing and eye-opening culture. And what a decision it was.

Where East meets West, Siberian winds collide with volcanic ranges, and soup always comes with noodles: Hokkaido Japan, makes for one extraordinary ski trip.

Photo: Sam Ingles

Arriving into the biting cold at 10PM, I wait patiently at Sapporo airport. I can’t open my eyes wide enough. Everything is different. Everything is cool. The people, the culture, the strange atmosphere, the funky Japanese symbols. Eventually, bus doors press open and the sound of k-pop breaks the silence. Laughing, I greet the driver as he bows towards me and says “Konbonwa” (“good evening” to me and you).

The next day I take a public bus towards Hokkaido’s largest ski town and my destination for the next two weeks: Niseko. Hypnotic scenes of regimented pillars and flashing lights morph into winding tree-lined roads and huge snowbanks as we head for the layered mountains in the distance. Entranced by the white fog clinging to the peaks, the serenity of the landscape screams rural Japan.

“Have we died and gone to snow heaven?”

To my utter dismay, the first few days of the trip are characterised by little snowfall. Unsure whether to be grateful or disappointed by the epic views of nearby active volcano Mount Yotei, our moods improves significantly hiking out boundary gates in Grand Hirafu and Hanazono for some classic Japanese tree skiing.

The snow’s not exactly light and fluffy, but there’s a lot of it. More than I’ve ever seen in Europe, and definitely more than our familiar Alps have seen in recent years. Hooning though the trees with a crew of five, we whoop, cheer, and yell our way through the White Birch forest. Have we died and gone to snow heaven?

Blinded by stories of chest deep powder, impressive tree spines and continuous snowfall, I hadn’t thought much on Japanese culture before the trip. To my surprise though, the cultural experience is totally transfixing, equal to, if not better than, the skiing.

Photo: Sam Ingles

In true Japanese fashion, everyone we meet is insanely polite. In fact, we’re practically bowed to at every ski lift. The friendly, helpful attitude is echoed throughout Hokkaido, and is no more present than at the epitome of Japanese culture, the Onsen.

Onsen’s are essentially natural hot springs. A daily ritual here, the tradition of washing and soaking publicly nude is customary for healing, relaxing and socialising. Men and women talk for hours, igniting connection with one-another whilst enjoying nature. In fact, it’s common for strangers to strike up conversation. The Japanese call this “hadaka no tsukiai” (裸の付き合い), aka “naked comradeship”. I can vouch, it is totally freeing.

“Everything is different. Everything is cool”

Food is no doubt weird in Japan. The supermarket is full of oddly packaged snacks, pizza steamed buns (so good) and an unfeasible amount of sushi. Eating out is always delicious (Ramen is always a winner) and the bars stock insane amounts of Japan’s famous whiskey to tickle your post snow pickle.

Enjoying everything from hilarious 90s pop playing from chairlift loudspeakers to pizza-box sized single chairlifts, it finally happens. The snow gods turn it on and we don’t see the sun for days. The whole resort wear contagious wild powder-fuelled grins, as if everyone’s caught incomprehensible stoke overnight.

Photo: Sam Ingles

Arriving at Annipuri, we drop into one of the back bowls to find what we’ve really come for. I score my first face shot. It’s somehow even better than I imagined.

Terrified, I disappear into the whiteroom again and hold my breath, hoping to god I haven’t misjudged my trajectory and pile into a tree. A friend races ahead and I try to keep up. Burning legs match adrenaline. Overwhelming exhilaration wins. The snow is perfect. Deep, light, fluffy and endless.

“The Japanese call this… naked comradeship”

For the remainder of the trip we dart between resorts, searching for the goods (although everywhere is good when it’s snowing here).

Finding ourselves in the most mind-bending resort Rustsu, I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun skiing powder. Between the closed theme park, long tree runs, wide groomers and hot vending machine coffees (yes they are a thing), my young ski legs are happily challenged and fully rewarded.

Photos: Sam Ingles

Inspired by the crazy snowfall, our final excursion takes us to Niseko Photography’s cat skiing resort Kygo. Deep in the woods, we convoy through the closed resort in cute 1980 diesel cats to lap the mellow terrain, negotiating hidden bumps of wood, creeks and pillows.

Quick boundless turns keep us on our toes. The guys send it off pillows and punch through slashes. It’s without doubt the deepest day I’ve ever seen. And without doubt the most stoke inducing conditions.

Four laps in, someone’s catching 40 winks in the cat. Six laps in and we’re completely shattered, but most likely the happiest humans on the planet. Looks like we’ll be coming back then.

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