Big surfaces above the tree line.
“Why bother with the thirteen hours of flight to Tokyo?”, I think when the business guy in the airplane seat next to me starts snoring. The AC valves above us blow out a cold, unnatural rain of air. The woman to the right of the aisle has rustled with her bag of shrimp chips ever since we left Kastrup. The noise from the engines. We sit 10,000 meters up in the air somewhere above the western parts of the Asian continent.
“On our way eight time zones eastwards towards Japan, it feels right now like lifetime imprisonment”
The winter season of 2016 has not exactly brought a lot of snow in Japan and the recent weeks' sad snowy webcams from the valley of Hakuba have haunted me day and night. Yet another deep sigh over our abysmal timing later, my eyelids have fallen shut. A surreal plane sleep takes over; I stand on top of Hakuba Nori Kura Dake 2,437 meters above sea level. Pink flakes fall from the sky and a baby pink quilt lies over the mountain. A flyer swirls past and lands perfectly in my ski glove.
Reading about the Hanami Feast: During a couple of spring days every year, thousands of cherry trees burst into pink blossoms. A beloved natural phenomenon that creates first-page news when the Japanese follow the cherry tree's flower forecast, like Scandinavians listen to the meteorologists' holiday weather. While the fruit trees shed their pink flowers for a few days, one celebrates with traditional food and sake, a time that does not come back until a whole year later. The Japanese emphasize the importance of appreciating the short and beautiful blossoming – a symbol, and reminder, of the transience of life.
When the sun rises over Japan eight hours earlier than in Sweden, the rays hit a banana-like archipelago of over six thousand islands on the western edge of the Pacific. From the frozen cold northern part of the island chain to the subtropical heat in the south, it is over three thousand kilometers. There are lots of mountains and volcanoes. The largest of all these land masses surrounded by salt water is the island of Honshu and that is where our aircraft lands.
“Nearly a hundred million Japanese people live on the island, thirty-five million of them in the metropolis of Tokyo, one of the world's largest urban areas”
The northern island of Hokkaido with ski resorts such as Nieseko gets the most snow and is appropriately also most talked about by skiers. But Honshu also has big snowfalls every year. The mountains are a bit taller and a bit steeper, especially in the western part of Honshu in the Japanese Alps where several peaks reach over the three thousand meter line. The valley of Hakuba is in this area, but this year the explanatory value of the historically good snow supply is about as reliable as Fukushima's electricity production after the meltdowns five years ago.
The snow cannons are in full swing when, a few days later, we walk over to the liftgate in Happo-One (pronounce: Happo-Ohnei), which is the largest of the more than a dozen ski resorts in the valley of Hakuba located just over four kilometers west of former Olympic village Nagano. The sound of the splashing artificial snow is like nails against the glass: we are reminded of the snowfall's transience, the whims of the weather, and that that easy flight from Scandinavia to Asia's world-famous powder pearl is no guarantee that there will be endless snow supplies when you get there. The lawyer, former FWT rider and 31-year-old Anne May Slinning says in the Nakiyamam 3-seat lift on the way up:
- When they make artificial snow in Japan, you know that it’s a real shit season.
She is joined by Jesper Appelquist, a 40-year-old Swedish carpenter, and Åre & Bad Gastein-seasoner:
- It’s definitely more snow in Gothenburg than here!
The exaggeration punctures the conversation and causes us all to smile a bittersweet smile. It is a ski day mostly in bounds and in the morning we go down some of the Happo-One's fine wide, well-groomed slopes in the system's close to 1,100 altitude meters. There are many moguls in the system, which the Japanese riders seem to like despite a perhaps not always fully refined ski technique to handle the snow bumps. There is a large proportion of boarders in general. Also, mostly foreign guests: Australians, North Americans and Europeans (mainly Scandinavians) are heard on the slopes, lift queues and inside the restaurants.
From the top of the Happo-One's lift system at an altitude of 1831 meters, a forest-free zig-zag ridge runs up the mountain Karamatsu-Dake at an altitude of 2700 meters. It is an impressive and unexpected high alpine environment where steep V-shaped gorges run up and down the sides. Not infrequently, they end abruptly without any actual outlets and therefore form pure death traps in the event of any snow slides. Choose the right ravine, for life is transiently beautiful and short.
Although by Japanese standards, it’s a bad winter, there is snow; powder has gathered on the lee side in this high alpine environment above the lifts, while on the ridge, where the skin- track takes skiers upwards, it is hard and windy. Some of the slopes feel alarmingly snow-loaded by wind and various unstable snow layers; despite this, a bunch of Japanese people without avalanche equipment are seen shooting off the mountain down like kamikaze battle pilots.
“In the next ravine another gang, like death-defying Samurai, gets ready for white Hara-kiri. Is that how the transience of life should be handled?”
Anne May shakes her head at the risk-taking of the indigenous skiers and carries on further up. She finds a mountainside that is safe, without excessive amounts of in-blown snow. In great fast-paced sweeping turns, she goes as if she hasn’t done anything else in her life.
- In most cases, very wet snow comes at the beginning of the season, which weighs down all the bushes, and then more snow comes to completely cover them, says Terry, the Canadian guide.
He has his second season here in Hakuba for the guide company Evergreen. We are sitting at the little restaurant Shioty a short taxi ride outside Hakuba's main town. The establishment is simple: in through a couple of sliding doors and then a room with three tables, two where you sit in a western way and between them a floor table. Dish by dish is loaded on to the table, right now a huge barrel of sushi and sashimi. Terry takes a salmon piece with the sticks and continues on the snow situation:
- This winter, the first heavy snow has called in sick and has not done its job, that is why bushes are everywhere. It reduces the possibilities especially in the systems at lower altitudes.
After the uber classical food with raw fish, the gastronomic cavalcade continues: smoked and deep-fried eggplant with fish sprinkles on top, whole-fried small shrimps with a splash of lemon (crumbles delightfully when you chow down the whole thing including the head), tempura of oysters, large shrimp and kale. The food is fresh, not exploding in flavors. The food we take part in from the Japanese kitchen during our journey is sophistically good and beautiful, quiet like the national soul.
These are dinners that invite quiet enjoyment. Noodle soup ends the meal accompanied by Asahi beer, small bowls of sake and conversation about Hakuba's ski resorts, snow and peak tours. Laughter and noise come from the table next to ours. It is a top tour gang from Sweden on a group trip with the concept of Pure Ski touring.
“Does he, in the rush of food, beer and companionship, not know our miserable snow situation?”
I turn from our table's contemplative tranquility and look at my compatriots. Mountain guide Christian Edelstam meets my gaze and happily raises his glass. Does the man not understand the transience of life? Or does he have an ace up his sleeve? Tomorrow comes the answer, then he'll show us the way up and down the forests and mountains around the Tsugaike ski resort. When the taxi goes home to the hotel, white flakes finally fall outside in the Japanese night.
Somewhat bruised from the late dinner of yesterday, we take the ski bus from Hakuba's main town to Tsugaike. A long but well-organized line leads up to the lift card booth and then into the gondola. Blue galloon bags are threaded onto the ski tips to protect the inside of the gondolas. After the more than four kilometers long journey, we put on the skis and slide down shortly to the right to two seat lifts and pull on the ski skins.
- Ready?, mountain guide Christian Edelstam wonders.
We start climbing over a small field and then into the forest, where a summer road winds through the trees. The firs are snow-laden. On leafy trees, fluffy snow piles lie on the thick horizontal branches. We walk like a bunch of Scandinavian top tour trolls through the mythical forest.
- The oldest trees are inhabited by wooden souls called Kodama, Christian Edelstam tells us.
It causes the imagination to wander to the animation master Miyazaki's animated children's cult film “My Neighbor Totoro” from 1988. These are not trees that can be felled down at will; here there are no chainsaws in the summer time to clear skier lines for the winter. We continue to strive upwards. Here and there bamboo branches protrude through the snow cover and tell us that we are far, far from home. It is idyllically windless and full of new powder. The previously ruined expectations have undoubtedly gained new ground and started to grow again.
Christian Edelstam reaches the tree line and beneath us on the other side is a north-facing bowl where small, fairly steep ravines succeed each other and below them sparse and nice sloping forest areas that blur further out of view.
“Pee, drink and snack break”
We continue along the edge of the pot, up towards the tree-free top at one end. When we reach the summit, we decide on a meeting point far below. Ski skins off and then we go one by one. It is exactly this Japan that we imagined before departing – light and deep powder snow, sparse trees and short fantastic skiing. Carpenter-Jesper smiles wide when I come down:
- Now, this is as far as you can get from foul snow cannons and Gothenburg slush!
We go up again, put a skin-track that we can use for more variants of a ride into the pot, on the next turn we take a steeper ravine. New turns in the snow that covers the body from the ski boot up to the helmet and goggles. Over and over again. Up and down.
A ski day with Christian Edelstam's guided tour will become two, will be three, will be four. One afternoon we try Tsugaike's higher alpine section towards Hakuba Nori Kura Dake 2,437 meters above sea level. The long flight here is nowhere in my head. Below the ski tips, there is no dreamy quilt of perishable pink cherry leaves that only fall once a year. It is an (almost) never-ending and frequently recurring cluster of white-colored frozen crystals that I shoot down through. An aggregation form of water that we will continue to enjoy forever.