Episode 3: Tracks across the ‘Floating Island’
Having bagged more than 120,000 kilometers of road tripping and skiing across Canada and the U.S. over four winters, I was up for a new challenge that would take me from Sapporo to Nagano, hitting Japan’s best skiing spots. I flew from Québec City right after Christmas to start the journey.
My first co-conspirator would be fellow Canadian Amelie Last Name?, with whom I had previously road-tripped from New Mexico to northern British Columbia. She would arrive with me, and her co-pilot skills would be welcome in facing left-lane driving, Japanese-language road maps, icy roads (as well as her organization skills and penchant for keeping things clean, if not her complaints about sleeping in a cold car).
Later I would be joined by my dad, as well as two of my best friends, Etienne Last Name? and Babiche Last Name?. Armed with my telemark skis and French-Japanese dictionary, I was ready to face Japan. At least, that is what I thought.
Arrive in Hokkaido
Is that bus leaving the one we’re supposed to catch? Exhausted after the 14-hour flight, Amelie and I wandered around the nearly-deserted Chitose Airport, desperate to find someone to help find our bus. We finally discovered our hotel bus was gone, leaving only the municipal bus or a costly taxi.
Juggling the options—and being cheap—we opted for the bus. The driver was helpful, letting us know when to get off, but from there we had no clue where to go...not good, since we both were carrying about 75 kilos of gear. Luckily, the hotel was only two blocks away. Although not one of the most exciting moments of the trip, one of the happiest was when I could finally collapse in that bed.
Dec. 30 to Jan. 6
After a much welcome sleep, we took a shuttle to Niseko to meet with Clayton Kernaghan at the Black Diamond Lodge to pick up our van for the journey. He was cool to rent us a van, knowing how hazardous a three-month road trip can be. He also gave us some great advice, which turned our stay in Japan’s “Powder Capital” into some of the best skiing in my life.
We mostly skied within the resort, since every day we were hit with at least 30 centimeters of snow, and were hitting Clayton’s secret stashes. Amelie’s blue eyes sparkled at the end of each day.
Epic snowfall at Kamui. Known for its laidback attitude toward backcountry access, Kamui is home to some terrific snow. Seeing manager Mitsu Maeda going out with a chainsaw cleaning up the trails (which he designed himself) after the 50-centimeter storm, you quickly understand the dedication he and his staff have for their mountain—no wonder everyone is smiling.
We followed Maeda’s recommendation and went around to the backside of the mountain. It seemed as if we were the only ones ripping down this side of the mountain. The only tracks Amelie and I crossed were our own. After such excellent skiing, we decided to reward ourselves by visiting a saké brewery in Asahikawa where the friendly, English-speaking host explained what we were drinking. After a few hours of chatting and sampling some generous tasting glasses, we left a bit dizzy.
Warm temperatures melted our hopes for light powder, so we decided to head to the Bocco Bar which had been recommended as an interesting spot. It turned out this small, underground bar was featuring a transvestite Japanese punk singer.
It was actually some great Japanese punk; and we were drinking whisky late in the night, enjoying some nomu-nication with the friendly bartender who scored us some inside information on a free onsen near Tokachi-dake. A bit hung-over the next morning, we headed up for a soak; the natural setting and light snowfall made it the best onsen of the trip.
My partner for the first part of the adventure, Amelie, returned to Canada, so I decided to drive west to Jozankei to catch up with Neil Hartmann, the photographer, snow guide, cinematographer and café owner in Jozankei who’s behind the “Car Danchi” movie series. These films feature powder addicts traveling in Hokkaido, sleeping in their cars and searching for good backcountry spots— it seemed right in line with my own travels.
Neil pointed out some good backcountry spots as we relaxed at his café. We spent the afternoon chatting about his past movies and the skiing scene in Japan and played some old school Super Nintendo. Even if the place truly felt like home, I had to leave since, later that day, I was to pick up my dad in Sapporo for three weeks traveling and skiing together.
An old injury resurfaced. I hit a hard tree bomb and pulled a muscle on my left thigh, so I figured it would be best to take a break and let it heal completely. My dad wasn’t very interested in sleeping in the van, so I had to get used to undressing and sleeping at the hotel, showering every day and wearing warm, dry ski boots. It was weird at first, but I got used to it.
Fukuage Onsen, in the shadows of Tokachi-dake in Daisetsuzan National Park, was the perfect place to relax, enjoy some nice mountain scenery and heal my injury. My dad took off by himself for some skiing at Furano-dake and, although the days were feeling long, I could feel my leg getting better.
Around Asahikawa, we skied some great roadside backcountry. Off some backroads east of Asahikawa, my dad and I shared our deepest days ever. He was my first skiing role model, and here we were doing lap after lap in light, consistent, deep snow.
We spent two days, in Ukishima (which directly translates to “Floating Island”). We had laid all the best lines, which would be seen covered in new snow, but the memory will last forever. Ahead of us was the long drive from Hokkaido all the way Narita on the main island of Honshu. In 10 days, my dad would fly home.
First time strapping on my skis on Honshu. The mountain of choice: Hakkoda. We showed up as a freakishly cold blizzard was in full effect; Canada looked like Hawaii compared to the temperatures we were experiencing. With a Himalayan wind nearing 90 kph and 50 centimeters of new “Japow,” we couldn’t see much of anything, which isn’t uncommon here.
We did find some great skiing, though, and I met up with another ski bum spending his winter living in his van at the bottom of the tramway. Great to see the lifestyle spreading in Japan.
Along the Pacific Coast
As we made our way toward Narita, we stopped at several resorts such as Geto 8, Zao Eboshi and Alts Bandai. Every resort provided great skiing but, like spoiled children, we weren’t excited about skiing 30 centimeters of snow inbounds.
The further south we went, the more Japanese the scenery seemed: houses with tiled roofs, stunning temples and shrines and increasing population density. It was more the image of Japan we had before we arrived; Hokkaido seemed like another country compared to the prefectures we were crossing here.
Nikko to Narita and on to Shiga Kogen, Nagano
After some tourist action at an ancient samurai house in Aizu-Wakamatsu and some magnificent sights in Nikko, it was time to get to Narita and say goodbye to my dad and hello to Etienne and Babiche who would be along for two and five weeks, respectively. Etienne had his first road tripping ski bum experience last year, while Babiche has been part of all my trips the past five years.
Etienne’s impressive snowboarding skills means he can ride backcountry at the same pace as us on telemark skis. Babiche’s laidback attitude makes winter-long ski road trips doable without killing each other. Living on plywood sheets in our Hi-ace would seem like a five-star setup compared to past trips where three hairy, smelly guys squeezed into a two-person tent on frozen ground.
From Narita, we drove west to avoid highway tolls, but jet lag soon turned my partners into useless sleeping beauties. After three road closures changed our traveling plans, I realized I might not be understanding the road signs, but we finally made it to Shiga Kogen after a nice eight-hour drive. If I had known, I would have dipped into the budget and paid the tolls.
Nozawa Onsen, Nagano
An unfortunate rain followed by cold temperatures turned much of the good skiing to ice-rink conditions. When we weren’t driving around hitting different backountry areas, liberal servings of sake helped keep our spirits high during the worst. We drove around and hit different backcountry areas and resorts. Nozawa Onsen was a treat; the free, jam-packed onsen was an experience in itself. I have never soaked with so many naked guys in such a small space.
Everything was dark inside the van when we woke up and wriggled out of our sardine-can spaces and crawled out. We were in Myoko, and snow—lots of it—was the reason for the darkness. Like junkies, we hysterically drove around the resorts at the base of Mt. Myoko, evaluating the potential for a great day of skiing.
After debating our best option for this epic storm, we finally set out for Seki Onsen. The skiing was great and, as hard as I tried to reach the rain crust below, the new layer of fresh powder kept me on top of the cashmere-like powder.
Etienne went inside for a poorly timed leak; Babiche and I were lucky enough to get the first ride on the area’s top chairlift. This single chair seemed straight out of the ’80s and was probably the least safe chair I have ever ridden. Squeaking wheels and rusty towers were part of my concern, but the ground was only feet away, so I wasn’t too worried. Deep and bottomless turns filled the rest of our day as we rode with our now-wild looking beards.
Feb. 19 to Mar. 4
Hakuba area, Nagano
I suspected Etienne had brought some bad karma with him, but conditions did not improve with his departure. A high-pressure system rolled in, accompanied by warm temperatures, turning the lovely cold and dry powder into creamy slush. Babiche managed to handle my grumpiness about not being able to ski bottomless powder and convinced me to take advantage of the weather to ski the backcountry at Hakuba 47, Happo-one and then on to Tenjin-daira in Gunma.
We enjoyed the stunning views of Alaska-like spines and couloirs. A forecast for heavy rain for the next few days cut our motivation to stay around Hakuba, and Babiche and I left with mixed feelings. The mountains had great potential, the backcountry access was easy, and the snow banks were proof of great skiing, but this time we weren’t able to use the environment to its full potential. We will have to go back and ski those steep lines again.
Niigata to Hokkaido
We drove from Hakuba to Niigata City, where we got on the ferry for Tomakomai in Hokkaido. The cruise was nice and smooth as I took my last views of Honshu from the windows of the onboard onsen, where I spent hours marinating and enjoying the view. We arrived at our destination at 4:30 a.m., and the cold air and fresh snow rendered our need for sleep obsolete. We immediately made the four-hour drive to Furano-dake.
I took Babiche back to the special deep-powder place my dad and I had enjoyed so much. I shivered with anticipation as we started skinning in knee-deep powder, and Floating Island once again lived up to its name as we floated through the powder.
We drove to nearby Sounkyo Gorge to experience some of the nicest scenery Hokkaido has to offer. The deep gorge carved in the base of the valley is the starting place for the tram to Kuro-dake. This summer-hiking paradise is a backcountry gem for those who dare to hike to the top, with almost unobstructed views and awesome skiing from the summit. The descent requires a little caution; venture too far from the prescribed track, and the steep terrain turns to cliffs. After soaking in the warm mid-March sun at the top, we carved high-speed turns.
Tomamu to Niseko, Hokkaido
After an epic cat skiing adventure in Tomamu (featured in Issue 37), we drove back to Niseko, full circle to where it all started. As we wandered around after another great day of skiing, we walked into the telemark ski shop Toryu. The owner was quite interested in our trip and, after talking for a while, we discovered he was Japanese telemark icon Yutaka Takanashi, known as Nacci.
Some of his backcountry buddies walked in, and we realized there was a lot we had yet to ski in Niseko. He offered to go riding with us but, unfortunately, we had to leave the next day.
Everyone in our group loved the Japan snow experience. The shy-at-first, but friendly personality of the Japanese we met, the food, the skiing; all of it made for one of the best trips of my life. Nacci’s offer is just one of many things we did not have time to do on this trip, and one more good reason to come back to Japan.