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Skiing Japan's Backcountry Dojo

By Stephen Earnhart - October 16th, 2006

National Geographic Adventure Website

Sculpture garden: So much snow falls on Hakkoda-san that its trees become glazed with frost. The Japanese call these firs juhyo, or "snow monsters." Photo by Stephen Earnhart.

Staring out the window, I listen to Miki, one of my students, stumble for the third time over the phrase, "Jimmy has two kittens and wants to go to Mister Donut!" It's six months into my stay in Japan, and the hyper-kinetic allure of neon Tokyo has faded into a muted, Lost in Translation haze. Kyoto awed me, Hiroshima depressed me, and with my time in country winding down, I am desperate to break out of an increasingly acute case of cultural isolation. I know that I've traveled halfway around the world to do more than teach English to bored housewives.

Eiji Aihara has the solution: a five-day, Japanese-style backcountry ski trip. I had scarcely thought of Japan as an off-piste haven until I met Aihara, 36, through Tokyo's International Adventure Club. An avid backcountry skier and guide, Aihara forwarded me photos of some of Japan's 671 ski areas (the U.S. has a mere 492). The slopes looked terrific, but most were too reminiscent of Western resorts. I tell Aihara that I want something challenging, something exotic, and most important, something quintessentially Japanese.

"I could take you to Hakkoda-san," Aihara responds, "if you think you're up for it."

The following week, when I tell Miki where I am going, she gapes in disbelief, then taps gravely on her pocket translator and shows me the words "primeval forest." Hakkoda-san, she explains, is haunted-in 1902 at least 199 soldiers died in a blizzard on its flanks. The event was memorialized in a 1977 Japanese blockbuster named for the mountain.

Hakkoda-san is the dominant range in Aomori (the northernmost prefecture on the main island, Honshu). It owes its fearsome weather to unimpeded Siberian storms that rake across the Sea of Japan, creating near perpetual blizzard conditions. Between January and March, it practically never stops snowing.

"On its best day of the year, Utah may have lighter, fluffier snow," Aihara, who spent five years living near Salt Lake City as a Nokia engineer, tells me. "But at Hakkoda-san, from January to March, you're virtually guaranteed knee-deep, very fine powder."

Turning Japanese
In fad-friendly Japan, skiing's been a craze since the mid-1980s. But recently the domestic obsession with ski culture has begun to wane, and Japanese ski areas are hoping that foreign visitors, drawn to the abundant snow, will keep the lift lines full. The powder is certainly the stuff of legend: Niseko, a resort area popular with Australians and globe-trotting Americans, gets a whopping 550 inches (1,397 centimeters) on average, more than any major continental U.S. resort. With its own impressive average snowfall of 500 inches (1,270 centimeters), Hakkoda-san is on par with Utah's Snowbird resort.

Hakkoda-san translates as "eight turtle-shaped mountains." Along with several secondary peaks, these eight summits form a sprawling, fan-shaped range of stratovolcanoes and lava domes. The summits are all accessible from the top station of the area's only significant lift, a hundred-passenger, 2,185-foot (666-meter) gondola known as "the Ropeway."

The Ropeway limits the number of skiers to 400 per hour, making Hakkoda-san feel like a 20,000-acre (8,094-hectare) private playground. The mountain's 150,000 visitors per year make up just a fraction of the crowds found at other Japanese ski areas, such as Naeba ski resort (part of the Nagano 1998 Winter Olympics site), which saw two million skiers last season. It's conceivable to ski the Hakkoda-san backcountry all day without seeing anyone. Guides are highly recommended, not only because of the vast amount of terrain, but also to keep guests away from volcanic vents in the northern part of the range where toxic gases killed three skiers in 1997.

What really distinguishes Hakkoda-san from other ski areas, Eastern or Western, is the lack of demarcation between in- and out-of-bounds. Along with France's famed, experts-only La Grave and Colorado's Silverton mountain, Hakkoda-san is one of few lift-served all-backcountry mountains in the world. Nothing is groomed. As I follow Aihara down runs right under the Ropeway, I see no marked trails-no ropes, no signs, nothing at all to keep us from going wherever we please.

In the days preceding our trip, Hakkoda-san's mythic backcountry loomed over me-especially because I had little experience off-piste and was worried about slowing down the other skiers Aihara had arranged to join us. These fears come to a head on our third day, when I find myself on an exposed 50-degree slope in blistering winds, caught in a snarl of snowshoes and straps and skis. Frustrated, Shizuka Onishi, 42, a sales rep from Tokyo, points at my snowshoes and shouts, "Stephen-san, please take off your leg!" Somehow I hold my own, slipping into my bindings and skiing-not falling-down the run.

After a blissfully arduous day of surviving cultural mishaps, mogul fields, and lairs of juhyo, or "snow monsters" (ice sculptures formed when massive evergreens become caked with windblasted hoarfrost), I'm more than ready for a dose of apre's-ski. It truly is the apre's scene that most clearly distinguishes one resort from another, and Japanese ski areas lay claim to a tradition unlike any you'd find at an Alpine ski haus or Rockies resort village. It starts, thankfully, with a soak in a hot spring-fed bath.

The Sukayu Onsen Hotel, our base camp, is a rustic old lodge renowned for its cavernous onsen, or "hot-spring bathhouse," which is said to accommodate a thousand people. Soaking in its magma-heated waters, the daze of a day's hard skiing is soon eclipsed by the relaxing sensations of marinating in steam and showering under the pounding flow of hot waterfalls.

Nightlife in Hakkoda-san has a distinct character as well. Rather than head for bars, we don robes and slippers and gather in a communal hall for a traditional meal of miso soup, broiled salmon with shiitake mushrooms, and pickled spinach. We then congregate in a candlelit lounge to swap stories for shots of sake before retiring to the plush futons in our bedrooms.

Snow Monster
The Aomori region surrounding Hakkoda-san is culturally remote enough that the peculiar dialect its residents speak often has to be subtitled on Japanese television. Fortunately no subtitles are necessary in the company of Simon Bernard, the sole native English-speaking guide on Hakkoda-san. We join him on our fourth day because Aihara prefers to have the assistance of Hakkoda-san-based guides when traveling deep into the backcountry. A transplanted Floridian, Bernard has been skiing here for 12 years. He limits his group size to no more than seven skiers, a number easy to keep track of in snowstorms.

During the four days I've been here, more than 30 inches (76 centimeters) of new snow has fallen, bringing the mountain's base to more than 15 feet (5 meters). Even by Hakkoda-san standards, this is a big season. Inspired by the prospect of powder on high, Bernard leads us to the top of 5,200-foot (1,585-meter) Mount Odake, the highest peak in the range. After nearly an hour of almost vertical climbing, we are looking down on a coliseum-size bowl of chest-deep virgin powder.

I'm offered the privilege of making first tracks, so I drop into a turn, cutting through the downy crystals with zeal. So much mass, so little resistance. For a few hundred yards, I'm feeling very Zen, surrendering to my own momentum, letting the skis and gravity do all the work.

Then I hit something under the snow and rocket into an embankment face-first. Laughing, I come up for air, completely powdered, as white as a ghost. After a week on Japan's haunted mountain, I have been on-piste, off-piste, and now in-piste. As it turns out, there's very little difference between them.

Adventure Guide: Skiing Japan's Hakkada-san
Your guide to Japan's haunted backcountry and the resorts that await beyond.
SKI AREAS: English-speaker Simon Bernard's Hakkoda Powder Snow Tours can guide you into the bountiful Hakkoda-san backcountry ($35 a day, $15 per gondola ride; www.hakkodapowder.com). Pack your own avalanche beacon, shovel, probes, and compass. For higher vertical and a more resort-like experience, check out Hokkaido's Niseko ski area ($40 for a lift ticket; www.niseko.ne.jp/en), which is growing increasingly popular with Australian and American skiers.

GETTING THERE: Japan Airlines runs several 12-hour flights a day from Los Angeles to Tokyo's Narita Airport ($680; www.jal.co.jp/en). Transfer to Haneda Airport and hop a 90-minute Japan Airlines flight to reach Aomori ($245) or Sapporo ($227), the gateway city to the Niseko resort area.

WHERE TO STAY: The Sukayu Onsen Hotel ($85; www1.odn.ne.jp/~sukayu) is a ryoken, or traditional Japanese inn, that's a favorite place to recoup after a day on Hakkoda-san.

RESOURCES: The Japan National Tourist Organization (www.jnto.go.jp) provides travel advice in English; Snow Japan (www.snowjapan.com) has helpful online reviews. --Rachel Scheer

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