See you later, Japan!

Image:See you later, Japan!
03. Dec, 2018 Written by: Bine Žalohar
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When I accidentally inhaled deeply I felt a pain in my lungs. I had to stop to cough it out and pull my half frozen mask over my face.” This is the memory of my first morning after arriving to Niseko and literally drowning in deep powder at Miharashi. The first few turns and jumps were stiff because I had just picked up a fresh pair of skis from service that very morning. A simple mounting job co‍‍‍‍‍‍st me 50 Euros. I had the bindings mounted 2.‍‍‍‍‍‍5 cm ahead of center on my 116s. It was a setup I used over the past few seasons but in the first few turns after a long journey I felt like an idiot. “I just can’t find the sweet spot, but my knees don’t hurt because I don’t need to hang back as much,” I said to myself. “I’m going faster even though the terrain isn’t steep.” I could feel the odd bamboo stick hit me as I floated through the hypnotizing white birch forest. “It’s colder than at home in Slovenia,” I thought as my thoughts went back to last year’s trip to Elbrus where I almost froze my bits off with a crew from back home even though the weather was OK.

It was amazing just how much better my body felt on Japanese pillows than on Russian ice. During the five months I spent at Niseko working as a freeride guide and ski instructor, I had five days I will remember for the rest of my life. Four were cloudy days of plowing and tunneling through bottomless fields of fluffy snowflakes that drifted high over my shoulders into the freezing Hokkaido air. But one was sunny. It was perfect, a quick and cold ride on Shiribetsu with Leon, the boss of the school I was working for, Luka, my old friend and Slovenian skate and snowboarding legend, and Lena, a fellow competitor from my slopestyle days and current Roxy girl.

Niseko itself is a bit boring, overcrowded with tourists from Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong with the newest gear and below average skills. Unfortunately that lack of skills is only exacerbated once they get through the gate, off the piste and in the freeride zone. With some investments into the lifts and infrastructure, the ski center could become one of the greatest ski areas of the coming decade. Unfortunately, current development plans focus on at least five new hotels and a bullet train to link Niseko and Sapporo by 2022. But still, Niseko remains among the most desired ski centers in the world.

The tourist office in the area offer somewhat overpriced cat skiing tours in Chisenpuri, Weiss Mountain and Iwanai. The abandoned ski slopes ca‍‍‍‍‍‍ter to those with deep pockets while truly interesting terrain lies just half an hour further. Freeriders can reach it with a relatively easy two hour climb to the peaks between Chise and Raiden. Io and Nitto offer some steep and short but sweet lines, the northern bowl above Rankoshi is almost always untouched and the playful terrain of Soupcurry bowl and Kutchan bowl are perfect when the clouds come in and skiing above 800 meters becomes impossible. I love exploring, so I happily joined forces with Cvetko Podlogar, a youthful 60-year old mountain guide from Bled, Slovenia, and checked out the terrain of nearby resorts Rusutsu, Kiroro and Tomakomai.

As ski centers go, they were nothing special. I did find extraordinary snow and steeps on the slopes of Shiribetsu above Rusutsu, some pretty zones below Yoichi and cliff jumps into the Yotei crater. Climbing the volcano takes just over three hours of Slovenian hard headedness, five hours of European walking or seven to eight hours of Australian shuffling. And that is on a good day with temperatures above -10 Celsius. It is a climb worth every penny paid to a guide like Cveto who knows exactly where to find untouched craters full of snow even on the most crowded days.

Fish diet and temple

It is December and Kutchan, the major city Belo Niseko, is already covered with a thick layer of snow. Its small square houses are linked with electrical cables and remain hidden to visitors until mid-March. The city has a few good local restaurants, a skate park, karaoke bar and Homec, a one stop shop for food, clothing, ski wax, a full kitchen or a bicycle. Another place to visit besides Kutchan is Otaru and its whiskey distilleries at Yoichi. Drinking the local brew is not advisable before a surfing session at the Otaru coast. “Next winter I’m bringing my wetsuit and board,” I keep telling myself every time I spot a nice smooth break.

When I arrived to Otaru after one of my short trips around Japan, all the trains were cancelled due to avalanche danger. So we were stuck with Leon and Nick in the be‍‍‍‍‍‍st all you can eat meat grill in town, right next to the be‍‍‍‍‍‍st sushi train. The shops and restaurants were stocked with delicious fish and just about everything else, I usually find in my local supermarket at home.

The architecture around Hokkaido is a stark opposite to the traditional Japanese temples Ana and I saw in Kyoto, Osaka and Nara. With the exception of some western buildings in Niseko and a few beautiful ryokans the buildings stand close to one another like Lego bricks and make for an interesting and sometimes shocking image. In spite of the chaos, I managed to find my way towards the volcanic chain of Daisetsuzan with my rented Toyota, scraping the underside on ice all the way.

Dangers of central Hokkaido

End of February. A forecast of Siberian anticyclone and gale force winds did nothing to dissuade this hard-headed Slovenian from the planned trip to Furano and Asahi-dake, the highest peak of Hokkaido. After seven hours of driving on snow covered roads we finally made it to the Gufo hut where we curled up in warm blankets only to wake up in even worse weather the next morning. Driving snow, wind and zero visibility. We were planning to ski Furano but even with the windscreen wipers ‍‍‍‍‍‍set to max I barely made the ten minute trip to the nearby Onsen where Ana and I separately warmed up our bones (men and women’s sections are separate) in the sulphur pools. The next day we made it to the Asahi-dake ski centre.

A gondola took us from about 1100 to some 1600 meters above the sea and to the start of two snowcat sized “pistes” down to the valley. Then the fun in the clouds began. I could barely see the tips of my Ripsticks, let alone see any features of the unknown terrain and assess the potential danger of all the fresh snow. During my time at Niseko I saw no major avalanches due to the geography of Annupuri. I only cut off a few minor surface ones to help my clients make their way over cornices with a bit less stress. At Asahi-dake, the terrain is much more open and exposed to the weather, making for a much more dangerous proposition with poor visibility and 20 centimeters of windblown snow. Together with a group of locals, mostly snowboarders (snowboarding seems to be more popular over there than back home) we made our way slowly towards the wooded areas on Asahi. There was some cracking even in the trees, but luckily no major avalanches. In such circumstances, the solution is usually more speed, but I did not dare go any faster with the poor visibility.

A similar scenario was repeated on the untracked areas around Furano the next day. The northeastern slopes were soft, inviting, and looked like velvet folds in the diffuse light of the sun shining through clouds and falling snow. The clouds were thin, but the snow did not stop falling. Why not? It was the “last run” of the afternoon and again with a catastrophic scenario. It was windblown snow on an icy south facing slope of 35-40 degrees, ending in a creek. The avalanche had already made its way down. I saw a 15-20 meter crown and the run-out some 300 meters lower. Our way out was above the crack, over at least another 8-10 meters of snow to the safety of the tree line. Turning back was not an option because of the grade, so I warned Ana of the danger ahead. I decided to ski diagonally across the remaining slab with enough force and speed to collapse the snow behind me while I move away to the safe ridge on the other side. I made my way across as planned, followed by Ana’s lesser pressure on the smaller and less dangerous slab and we were safely over the first part of our line. Riding down the hard track of the avalanche was not exactly a highlight of an otherwise above average day at Furano. Safe and armed with new experience we enjoyed our fourth day on the then almost sunny Asahi-dake with a tour up to the springs and some powder runs in the western couloirs.

Taste of Japanese sea

The last adventure on my list was a descent of the eastern couloir of Rishiri-zan, a run I planned before I left Slovenia. Rishiri is an island in the northwest of Japan, shaped like a cone due to its volcanic origin. The 1721 meter high floating mountain captured my imagination after hearing about it from Lena, Aaron and Cvetko. I really yearned for some technical skiing and freeride to finish my season. Seven days before my scheduled departure for home we only had one window of opportunity. The weather forecast said three days of sun. In the end we found that forecasts for the island can’t be trusted because the weather changes very quickly. On the first day Leon, Hidde, Sam, Stefan and I still had some luck with the 15 centimeters of fluffy powder on an icy base as we skied down the eastern shoulder some 500 meters below the summit. The weather turned sour the next day and we kept off the mountain.

We used the rain, snow and wind for a 60 kilometer drive around the island. Then the weather changed and things were looking up for our last day. In the morning we headed the advice of Toshi Watanabe, local mountain guide who knows every inch of the mountain, and started off at four in the morning up the relatively flat part towards the northern ridge, where we eventually decided to turn back at nine in the morning. Icy hard pack on the ridge and strong winds that were blowing me off the track by a meter at a time with skis on my backpack were reason enough to leave the summit and its rock, couloir and jump strewn slopes for next year. Without words and with a bitter taste in my mouth, I linked turns down deep snow drifts in the couloirs and enjoyed the be‍‍‍‍‍‍st part of the sunny day on the mountain floating in the Sea of Japan. “I’ll be back” I muttered to myself while taking pictures of the fairytale landscape around me.

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