Thursday, February 25, 2016

Honshu socks ski goddess a shiner!

After a couple of rainy days in Otaru without any skiing, I woke to find new snow had fallen overnight. But it was time to head south to Honshu, with a scenic train ride through Sapporo to New Chitose Airport, then a 1.5 hour flight to Tokyo's Haneda Airport.

Rather than negotiate at least 4 train connections with my luggage during the evening peak hour I chose to book a minibus transfer from the airport to my Ryokan in Yudanaka. It took a good deal longer than a train ride would have, was a little more expensive, but was completely hassle free. A chap met me at the arrival gate, wheeled my luggage to the van and loaded it, we picked up a bunch of other passengers at three other locations, then made our way towards Nagano then on to Yudanaka, dropping off the other passengers en route. We even stopped regularly for toilet and meal breaks.

I arrived at the Ryokan a little before midnight, pulled the skis and boots out of my bag so I didn't have to schlepp them upstairs to my room, woke up my room-mate (Charlotte, whom I'd shared with last year), put on my PJs, and went straight to bed.

Next morning I met the rest of the crew. I have joined half way through a tour, so whilst the others have already got to know each other, I'm still learning their names. Jason is away up north guiding a twin island tour, but my friend Kathy was there to greet me, along with 3 other guides: Yuki, Keith and Jack. Yuki I'd met before in New Zealand, from where Jason had employed her. In fact we'd even hitched up to the mountain one day in the same car.

Jack was nominally the boss whilst Jason was away, something that may have miffed Keith as the most senior in age, though Jack has more recent ski patrol experience, even though he's only 19. Keith was a ski professional in his twenties before settling down into a career in the financial/business sector, from which he has recently left. Spending a few months in Japan ski guiding is his chance to think about his future direction. Ah, we all have so many forks in our life paths don't we?

The first day we skied at Yokote, which is the highest ski field within the Shiga Kogen complex of ski resorts. The snowfall in Honshu hasn't been very good this year, and they also just had rain, so off piste cover is very patchy. We spent the day skidding over wind scoured ice or turning in soft 20cm wind drifted snow. Every turn was either one or the other. Not fun, more survival.

I must have performed particularly badly on my first day for the ski guides (not surprising given the conditions were appalling after skiing deep pow on Hokkaido for the last 3 weeks) so the next day I was put in Yuki's group - the group for the slower, less competent riders and skiers. I didn't mind as the off piste was pretty scratchy and there were a number of clients on the trip who were powder hungry for whatever they could get. Let them go hard on pretty crappy terrain, I'll just stick to the piste until the conditions improve. Plus, our group were cruisy, and fun to hang out with.

We headed to Madurao, expecting another bad day, but instead discovered they'd had fresh snow overnight and the snow began falling again mid morning. In fact it puked down. We skied knee deep pow along the edge of piste runs, slipped in to some cruisy tree runs and hooned down this awesome natural pipe, and then in the afternoon we did it all again as the snow continued to puke down. It was an amazingly fun day, with a great bunch of skiers and boarders.

Day three we headed back to Madurao to smash that pow a bit more. It was a bluebird day, so we headed up the single chair to the top and scared ourselves shitless doing a fast blind traverse across to another lovely tree run. Our little group splintered into smaller groups as some got overwhelmed by the tricky traverse, but I skied it twice more before heading over to the natural pipe for another exhilarating run, then caught up with Kathy for a few more runs before lunch. Then we did it all again in the afternoon. Another fun day, followed by sushi train in the nearby town of Nakano.

Day four, and no new snow, was spent at Nosawa Onsen skiing the piste. I was still with Yuki's crew and we had a fun time powering down the long Skyline run from the top of the mountain down to the village, whilst some of the other groups tried to find a few fresh patches amongst the trees up high. I was enjoying getting my Soul 7s on their edges and carving some turns rather than scratching for pickings in the trees. I've had a bit of a love hate relationship with these skis, but at last I'm feeling comfortable skiing them in most conditions. Another fun day, topped off with a few boutique beers in a pub in the village.

Day 5 the group I had been skiing with were all leaving, aside from my roomie Charlotte, but we were joined by Richard, a Kiwi from Central Otago in New Zealand. Keith drove our small group up to Shiga Kogen, where the wind had closed many of the gondolas, but we still found some good slopes to shred, albeit en piste and rather firm.

Day 6 and a new crew had arrived, whilst Charlotte had left. I stayed with Keith as my guide and we skied Shiga Kogen again, however the wind had scoured the runs and they were icier than the day before, whilst the off piste was as hard as a rock. Even the hard core stayed out of the trees that day!

Day 7, with 5-10cm of fresh snow overnight, we headed to Madurao again. I skied with Jack, along with 2 young Austrian skiers and Kiwi Richard. The Austrian boys, born with skis on their feet, were a joy to watch as they launched off any lip they could find, often landing switch, and really giving young Jack a run for his money. Richard and I took up the rear, enjoying some nice tree runs and a few loops through the natural pipe again. A day of laughter and fun. That evening Kathy and I headed out to a local pub for gyoza and beer whilst the others went to sushi train.

Day 8 we returned to Yokote, and nearby Kumanoya. A bluebird day, and crusty conditions, so piste skiing again. Hooning down the steeps on my Soul 7s now seems so easy! The views were pretty awesome from the restaurant at the top of the mountain too.

Day 9, my final ski day, we headed back to Shiga Kogen, this time with more fresh snow overnight. A 25cm top up had made the trees skiable again, but emerging back onto the piste runs could be treacherous. The Japanese love their moguls, and there is often a zip line down one side of a piste run. The new snow had filled in the bumps, disguising their whereabouts, but hadn't softened them one bit! After skiing soft pow under the chairlift I came out onto the piste, hit a hard bump at speed and ejected out of both skis, careening headfirst down the slope. Ouch!  My goggles jammed between my helmet and cheek, resulting in one black eye!!

After that little accident I elected to leave Jack with his madcap Austrians, and joined Keith's group for the rest of the day. Still searching for pow amongst the trees, but at a cruiser pace. Not surprisingly, one of the Austrian lads managed to collide with a tree, all captured on his GoPro too!

So that's it for my Honshu ski adventure. Despite the lack of snow for any decent off piste skiing I had a fun time with great people, discovered a few more ski resorts, and especially enjoyed staying at the Ryokan again. Awesome meals and an onsen every day makes this ski bum very happy.

Day 10 I headed back to Tokyo. Now that was an adventure in itself!

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