By Sam Collentine, Meteorologist Posted 3 years ago August 24, 2020
The following article was written by Julie Nieuwenhuijs of @DutchiesDoSki. Photos courtesy of Caroline van 't Hoff.
Turn after turn we gracefully glide through fluffy, dry powder between birches that look like a wintry jungle, every twig of their twisting branches stacked with snow crystals. Every few moments one of us disappears behind a huge powder cloud before bursting out, face cracked into a huge smile.
We, three Dutch ski journalists, are in the land of the endless snow, Japan, where for days on end we have been skiing first-class, feather-light, and hip-deep powder.
We are in Hakuba, the heart of the Japanese Alps. With an average snowfall of six days a week; fifteen meters in a season lasting just 3.5 months, and 12-hour ski days, the chances of powder in Japan are the largest by far: it’s not roulette, it’s a guaranteed jackpot! Caroline, Len and I, three Dutch ski journalists, couldn’t resist these numbers and timing our visit to see the first stop of the Freeride World Tour, is the icing on the cake!
Our friend and local ski guide Dave Enright takes us for a ski tour in the mighty mountains of Happo-One, one of Hakuba’s ten ski resorts. Huge peaks and steep couloirs surround us. After a few hours, it is finally time to drop into a large bowl, where 1,000 vertical meters of heavenly powder await us. The powder is so dry that our spray remains visible like a cloud of smoke in the air.
Euphorically, we ski towards Dave and, as always, we are hungry for more! In the afternoon, we head into the famous Japanese birch forests, which look like a wintry jungle with their twisting branches covered in snow. We soar down in perfect conditions, which only seem to exist in the ski movies. The snow is so light that it is virtually impossible to breathe. Whooping, we arrive at the road, where a taxi awaits us. To top it all, he points out wild monkeys as they dangle from trees along the way!
Once it gets dark, we make our way to the village of Happo-One, as we are excited to see the opening of the Freeride World Tour, a big mountain ski and snowboard competition held here this week and to meet the riders!
Freeride World Tour
We expected huge crowds during the official opening of the FWT in the center of Hakuba, and ended being positively surprised as we could casually chat with the legendary Travis Rice, Hedvig Wessel, Markus Eder and Tanner Hall – a phenomenal start to our FWT!
Having the event in Hakuba in January is not the most obvious choice as it simply almost always snows. Last year the event was even canceled, as there wasn’t a clear day in 10 consecutive days but according to Dave, the forecast for tomorrow looks promising! Having lived in Hakuba for the last 10 years, Dave is the most knowledgeable guide of the region. We are therefore not surprised to find out he is the lead safety guide for the FWT event in the backcountry of Happo-One. For years he has been guiding clients around and teaching avalanche safety training.
The next morning we make way to the competition face, “Big triangle”, a face far away from the ski resort Happo-One, that you can only access via a skin track.
There we meet Roy, a fellow Dutchie who works for the FWT and who gives us a bit of background about the event:
“The biggest challenge was transporting ten generators to the venue to power the live stream from the finish line. The generators are super heavy and it was a hell of a job to move them through all those meters of fresh powder, so far away from the ski area. Then we had to get them working in this freezing cold. As the venue is truly off the grid, setting up a reliable live stream for all the fans is quite complex.”
With a big grin, he continues, “I have been here since 4 am, waiting for the riders. They all had to boot pack up the competition face in complete darkness. The first riders have been actually been at the summit for some time now, so I suspect we can start any minute now!”
“Three, two, one dropping. Travis is on his way .. ,” we hear over Roy’s walky-talky. The 2019 Freeride World Tour has officially started! With our binoculars, we watch the riders come down one by one. For hours we enjoy the spectacular runs in the Japanese Alps and as the day progresses, the finish line gets increasingly busy, what a great atmosphere!
We often get asked where to go in Japan and which guide to ski with, so we have summarized our trip for you.
Hakuba consists of 10 different resorts and it is located in the heart of the Japanese Alps. Happo One is the best resort to access the true alpine terrain of Hakuba consisting stunning spine lines and rugged peaks. Cortina is another resort to check out, as it best tree skiing of the valley.
The options of where to stay in Hakuba are endless, no matter your budget. We highly recommend The Alps View in Tsugaike, a newly renovated slope-side hotel where the FWT after-party was held and believe it or not, Travis Rice took over the bar and was handing out free beer to celebrate his victory!
Discover the backcountry of Hakuba with the guides from Evergreen Outdoor Centre. Everyday the guides from Evergreen, decide where to ski, depending on the snow conditions. You can choose between a backcountry tour (ski touring/ split boarding) for 75 euro per person or an off-piste tour (lift accessed powder) for 80 euro per person.
Skiing in Japan is so much more than just world-class powder; it is truly a fascinating country. The main reason for Japan’s ‘other-worldliness’ for us Europeans is that the country has been virtually free of foreign influences for centuries. In this homogeneous society, with 99% of the country’s 127 million inhabitants being Japanese, preserving the traditional culture continues to play a major role today.
It is a society that values personal responsibility and hard work, as well as modesty and a sense of solidarity within a community. The fascinating culture combined with amazing food, beautiful nature and Japanese hospitality are the reasons photographer Caroline and I have come back to ski this country for the fourth winter in 6 years time years. It just combines so many of our favorite ingredients: fresh snow almost every day, a relatively stable and very deep snowpack, hardly any other freeriders, beautiful birch forests filled with pillows and the list continues.
Even if you are not a powder junkie, Japan just has so much to offer: heated toilet seats, unlimited karaoke, gyoza, toilet slippers, Asahi, udon noodles, tempura, fire festivals, (beer) vending machines on every corner, tiny cars, onsens and unlimited faceshots.
Text: Julie Nieuwenhuys
Images: Caroline van ’t Hoff