Snow

The mighty powder rangers

Japan is the new frontier for those looking for a serious powder fix. Felix Milns gets privileged access to virgin snow.

October 19 2009
Felix Milns

“Have respect for where we’re allowed to ski today,” said the enigmatic Warren Smith, as we, his disciples, gathered at the top of Furano Mountain. Alongside Warren and two of his instructors were our Japanese guide, Hiroshi Etori, and head of ski patrol, Yoshimi Saito. We were part of history in the making.

Off-piste skiing is still strictly controlled in many of Japan’s ski areas and the hallowed snowfields off the back of Furano Mountain are no exception. It is real wilderness skiing, containing some of the most tantalising tree skiing in the world. It is rapidly becoming the new frontier in global skiing as more and more experienced skiers look east for their powder fix.

To duck under what is the mother of all ropes, you first need signed permission from the head of the local police force. Never before had the local authorities allowed anyone to run a course here. But then again, this was no ordinary course. From base camp in Verbier, Warren Smith’s Ski Academy has built up a highly respected international brand, and it was that reputation, plus a large dose of cheeky charm, that had helped Smith to open up the terrain on a recce trip the previous year.

His philosophy is to teach skiing as a performance sport rather than as a recreational activity, a strategy that has lured the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio, Damon Hill and even Claudia Schiffer to his client books. Many of the guests on what was his inaugural powder camp in Japan were long-term supporters, having previously attended Academy weeks in Verbier or on the summer glacier in Saas-Fee.

They had been lured to Japan on the promise of a powder camp, the chance to hone their technique in some of the lightest and brightest powder in the world. Japanese snow is generally so light and dry that it’s impossible to make it into a snowball. Instead, you just blow it from your glove like a dandelion. The mood was one of almost reverent anticipation as we ducked under the boundary rope and began a 20-minute “bootpack” through a forest of spindly white birch trees. Above, we caught occasional glimpses of blue sky, but, in true Japanese style, even when it’s sunny it still somehow manages to snow. Last season was one of Japan’s worst in 30 years but, to put that into perspective, that meant we were skiing in powder that was knee-deep rather than waist-deep.

In Japanese culture, forests are sacred places and, as the dappled light kaleidoscoped around us, it was easy to see why. As the terrain began to fall away beneath us, we split into two groups, clicked into our bindings and prepared to drop down into the trees. Many of them were densely packed. The more confident among us took tight lines, while those who were less sure of themselves practised their newly honed technique in the semi-open glades.

A Warren Smith course is not like hiring a guide for the day; it is about developing your technique for steep and deep skiing. A day typically starts with an intensive stretching and warm-up routine to kick-start the various muscle groups, followed by some challenging on-piste drills to underline the fundamentals of performance skiing. No matter how able a skier you think you are, the courses are thoroughly eye-opening. Perhaps you’ve been skiing all your life and are very confident in all terrain, but have not had any instruction for 20 years? Smith can take you up a level or two. Perhaps you’re a confident on-piste skier but you always pick up too much speed in the turn on steeper itineraries? He’ll give you that control. That’s why so many clients keep coming back for more.

It was my first time with Smith and I fell into the first category. One of his favourite drills and fundamental skills is the braquage turn, where you keep your shoulders and, crucially, hips, facing directly down the fall line while pivoting your legs 180° underneath you, the ultimate short-radius turn. Does that sound easy? Try it and I bet you a bottle of sake that you lift your inside edge.

Another key tool in Smith’s method is video analysis, and he spent one long bus journey between resorts dissecting our technique, both on piste and in the powder. It proved a very revealing exercise.

So, in Warren’s words, we were trying to keep in mind “the relationship between the noodle [pointing at his head] and the hip” as we powered down through the powder. It was a sensational descent as we followed our Pied Piper through the trees, but even better was to come. After a long traverse back into the main ski area we rode the cable car and chairlift up to the summit. The weather had closed in – so much so that the chairlift was closed to all bar our VIP group.

This time, Etori had a real treat in store for us. We all put our skis on our backpacks to hike up to the very summit of the mountain. The best ski adventures are not just about thrilling descents; sometimes the most magical aspect is getting there. As we hiked up a narrow shoulder, the freshly falling snow seemed to insulate us from the rest of the world; all we had to do was to get to that summit. Looking up at the group above me, Smith and Etori had made it to the top and stood looking down over the untamed landscape like generals. When we were all “summited”, kitted up and ready to go, they sent off salvo after salvo of skiers. Let off the leash, we yelled like conquering armies as we carved up the virgin terrain beneath our feet. As we clicked out of our bindings that night, John, a banker from London, said, “Oh well, I now have a new best-ever skiing day. That’s two in three days – not bad going.”

Maybe it’s Japan’s Lost in Translation effect, or perhaps it’s just doing something familiar in such an unfamiliar country, but skiing in Japan is innately surreal. And yet the incomprehensible signs, be they in Japanese or English (“Be snowball” was a favourite), vending machines dispatching hot cans of coffee and the option of fermented fish guts for breakfast (they certainly set you up for the day) only make it a richer skiing experience.

After all, where else can you get the holy-trinity combination of cold sushi, hot sake and endless fields of powder? It is worth going for the hotel buffets alone. All-inclusive hotel packages are not normally something to write home about but, as a country obsessed with food, Japan proves a notable exception. A typical buffet includes a finer grade of fatty tuna, yellowtail, salmon, squid and prawns than would grace the tables of Nobu, endless dim sum, flash-fried sirloin steaks with a soy, ginger, garlic and vinegar sauce, freshly made soba noodles, and light, crispy tempura with dashi.

And then, of course, there is the sake, without which no ski trip to Japan is complete. Sake literally translates as “alcohol” and there are almost as many varieties and brands as there are whiskies in the world. It is the ultimate après-ski loosener and essential fuel before a quintessentially Japanese night out: karaoke.

Uta Dorobo, which aptly translates as “Song Robber”, is the karaoke bar of choice in downtown Furano. Run by a Japanese grandmother with a beatific smile, it costs ¥2,000 (about £13) for two hours’ free drinking and £1.30 per song, a terrific bargain. Within half an hour of our arrival, our hostess had presented us all with banzai-style headbands and the party was in full swing. One of the group was so inspired by the trip that he performed an impromptu reworking of Puff, the Magic Dragon, with a chorus of “Ski the Warren Smith way, down in Japan. Hike those peaks and ski those steeps, just ski it while you can.”

But back to the skiing. Japan has some 500 resorts, most of which, including the 1998 Winter Olympic venue of Nagano, are on the main island, but arguably the best snow is found on the northern island of Hokkaido. With a 1,000m vertical descent, one of the longest in the country, Furano is a great base. Apart from excellent local skiing, there is a handful of memorable day trips possible from here. Asahidake is a live volcano, where clouds of steam rise from fumaroles. Though it was never intended as a ski destination – the cable car was originally installed for summer visitors – it is now one of Japan’s top powder holes.

Our group also visited Kamui, a resort that has played a key role in modernising Japan’s archaic stance on off-piste skiing. It is ironic that a country that has so much snowfall (13m per season on average) is seemingly so concerned about it in its unpisted form. Although, to be fair, the all-mountain ski culture of North America and Europe is a relatively new concept in Japan. Takaya Maeda, the forward-thinking director of the ski area, is in his mid-60s, yet he is still skiing the powder every day; his son is one of the country’s top freeriders. The terrain off the back of the mountain offers endless fresh pillows of powder.

We had to pinch ourselves. It was February half-term back home, a peak week in the Alps, but here we had the mountain virtually to ourselves. We did, however, run into a local ski celebrity. Nicknamed the “Hokkaido Hobo” by Powder Magazine, Taka is the original Japanese ski bum, having done 24 seasons back-to-back in New Zealand and Japan while living out of the back of his van.

Our trip had actually started in arguably the more famous resort of Niseko, under the watchful gaze of Mount Yotei, the Mount Fuji of the North. The first day was blighted by an almost unheard-of occurrence, rain in February. Having come purely for the powder, our group was understandably anxious, but we did not have to wait long for the first bite of our Japanese cherry. Here the blossom fell not as petals but rather as snowflakes and, over the next few days, Niseko saw 150cm of snowfall.

The first day may have been a washout, but the next was anything but. We braved the snowstorm to ski for most of the day and then, just when we thought it was over, it all began again. Another Japanese highlight is the night skiing. Whereas it is something of a gimmick in Europe and North America, here it is taken very seriously indeed.

Many local skiers come for an after-work burn and, when we looked out over the beautiful scene, with snow falling amid the floodlit trees, we knew what we had to do and joined them on a very cold chairlift after dark. You need to wrap up warm here as it frequently drops below -20°, and that’s just in daylight hours. However, it was more than worth braving the weather. The experience of skiing fresh tracks through floodlit trees while coin-sized snowflakes fall gently all around you is an all-time skiing high. Later that night, watching the snow continue to fall as we soaked our weary bones in the warmth of an outdoor onsen (hot spring), it was clear that the sacred mountains had earned our ultimate respect.

See also

Skiing, Off-piste