By Neil Hartmann
Masanori Takeuchi is a legend in snowboarding. Hailing from the Joetsu area of Niigata, he was raised a skier and then discovered surfing when he was 16. Shortly thereafter, Masa discovered snowboarding. In a twist of fate, at age 18, he entered and won a giant slalom ski race near his home. The winning prize was a pair of skis and a Burton Backhill snowboard.
The Burton board seemed like the perfect way for him to practice surfing during the winter. The board had no edges for riding on packed snow, so naturally his first riding experience came on powder.
From sliding down hills in his neighborhood to mastering those early hand dug half pipes, Masa became a master of snow surfing and went on to reign as all-Japan champion for many years. Later, following in the footsteps of his friend and mentor, the late great Craig Kelly, Masa made the transition to backcountry and free riding and has remained as a leader of the sport ever since.
Masa’s first experience with snow cat boarding dates back to the mid ’90s when he went on a filming trip with Craig to Canada’s now famous Island Lake Lodge. It was there Masa was able to experience the beauty of the mountains and the fun of riding natural untracked terrain in a private setting with only a few friends.
“Heli boarding is the ultimate trip to the peak, but cat boarding is a better way to spend a great day with friends playing in the snow,” Masa says.
At the turn of this century, Masa was living in the Shonan area when he decided to get back to his roots and take up residence below Seki Onsen, the famed powder ski area. From his house there, he had a view of Hikarigahara and the peak Kurokura across the valley. He became interested in the mountain and poured over maps and even split-boarded to the top to take a look.
“When I got to the top, I found a long ridge line with more than 400 meters of vertical. It was a perfect place for a cat tour operation, so I knew I had to make it happen,” he explains.
In 2003, Masa took a big chance and borrowed an old cat from a small local resort. He then organized permission to run a cat-serviced tour operation in and around the Hikarigahara area. Facing west with a fantastic view of Mt. Myoko and the surrounding area, Hikarigahara is a summertime tourist stopping point. This high elevation plateau provides grazing land for dairy cows and photo opportunities for the tourists while slurping down ice cream and devouring fresh cheese.
In summer, the road continues up and over the high ridgeline and into Nagano Prefecture. During winter, the road is closed, the soft ice cream machine is given a rest and the cows are taken to lower ground. From mid-January until the end of March, the entire highlands range becomes a playland for Masa and his guests.
I joined Masa and his main guides Shunsuke Hoshino, Mitsugu Toyoda and Tomo Higashino for three consecutive days in early March as they hosted their eager guests to some perfect powder, group photos and good food.
What can people expect on an average day at Hikarigahara?
“Riders can expect to make six to eight runs a day with a break for a nice Italian-style sandwich lunch and hot coffee. The average vertical each day is about 1,600 meters,” Masa tells me over breakfast.
Being a good snowboard bum, I started my morning at Masa’s house enjoying an early breakfast with his family and two children. His 6-year-old son Haruki decided to join us on today’s tour and hurries to get all his gear on in time for departure. Half an hour later, we arrive at the loading zone/base station.
The Niigata, Myoko area is famous for record snowfalls, and this day is no exception. Forty centimeters of fresh snow needs to be cleared from the parking lot. Masa handles the giant snow blower like a veteran. Soon a micro-bus arrives with today’s customers, a smiling laughing group of Hikarigahara locals. Masa has created a members club for heavy users, and today is their day—a discounted tour just for those in the club. Spirits are high as we climb into the cat for the 20-minute ride up.
Over the last seven years, Masa and his guides have learned and studied every inch of the mountains within their area, and the masterful way in which they lead a tour is a pleasure to watch. With no hiking and a friendly guide pointing the way, it is easy to feel like a celebrity.
The first run starts at the top of the aptly named “Morning Ridge.” It is a fun line with gentle rollers lit by the morning sunlight and long shadows from the majestic pine trees, and everyone hoots and hollers all the way to the bottom. As the group watches tail guide Shunsuke throw a tweak and casually make picture perfect turns to the bottom, the cat arrives and the door swings open.
From here on, the day is a blur; each time the cat door opens, a new line waits to be explored. From steep chutes with names such as “Pipeline” and “Backdoor,” to mellow cruisers such as “Buna Ridge,” each run has been carefully chosen for maximum fun.
Riders and skiers are expected to be intermediate in level with experience on a variety of terrain, but there is something for everyone to enjoy. Masa knows how to judge his clients, and he makes sure to push you just a little bit, so you come away not only having a fun day, but also learning something. He tells me the best thing about owning and running a Cat tour op is the chance to hang out with so many people who enjoy riding in a similar style.
“Getting to lead people and help push their riding skills to new levels is gratifying—oh yeah, and I have the whole mountain to myself on weekdays,” he adds with a knowing smile.
Off-days find Masa product testing for his board sponsor, Burton, or just building roads for the cat in preparation for the weekend tours. He certainly can’t complain about having to make solo, top-to-bottom runs. “Hey, somebody has to do it.”
I ask him what kind of customer is attracted to Hikarigahara. He says the average age is certainly higher than what you see at a ski resort. Some are people who have tired of riding at resorts. Others might have stopped skiing or snowboarding for a while and now want to get back into the sport, but everyone shares a common love of powder snow and backcountry riding.
The Hikarigahara tour schedule is mostly a weekend affair, but Masa is looking to expand into some weekday sessions with overseas visitors in mind. Hakuba is only an hour and a half drive away, making it a viable option for someone who is spending a week skiing in the area, and the Myoko Valley is right there. The majority of Japanese customers are working during the week, so for now Masa has the area to himself, however that all could change very soon.
It’s Day 3 of my stay at Hikarigahara, and we are wrapping up the afternoon session with one more run. Masa leads us along a narrow ridge line—with a breathtaking view—but everyone is concentrating on not falling off the single track, as both sides drop away steeply.
Finally we reach the end of the ridge and the beginning of our final run. Masa explains the run; a wide open face with only a scattering of trees leads down to the cat road, and in the distance we can see the cat making its way back to base.
“OK, it is going to be a race to the bottom, and the first one back to the loading area is the winner,” Masa says, even giving us a head start. For the first time, we get to lead with Masa and the guides starting last, and with a “three, two…one” countdown, we are off.
Everyone enjoys the last powder turns before hitting the cat road and “pointing it” like downhill racers. I use my heavy camera bag as an advantage, milking every turn for speed. It is a long, winding run down the cat track, and my thighs are starting to burn, but I am feeling victory at hand.
I am in the lead and there it is—the base station—just around the corner. Swoosh! Masa blasts past me with just 200 meters to go. Did I really think I would have a chance against a national champion?
Hikarigahara Cat Tours