Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The spectacular Japanese Alps

We left Myoko and its nice Japanese vibe to drive towards Hakuba and its buzzling town and resorts. Unfortunately, the resorts around haven't receive the snow that we skied at Seki Onsen. Halfway down our first (and only) run, we just needed some motivation in cans. The conditions were not fast, not hard, but just shear, pure ice!
Since Etienne was to leave on the following day, we turned to the other option Hakuba has to offer: party! After drinking 3.6 liters of sake we went out.... the rest is history that none of us can remember!
The following day, we weren't much in the mood for skating down the hill, so we went to Matsumoto to visit a castle. It was one of the worst sightseeing I ever done! No history, no information, no nothing. Don't waste your time visiting this feodal castle.
We dove back north but this time towards Yuzawa. It is a nice little town nestle in the Japanese Alps with tons of visitors from Tokyo. After a quick call to the brother of a friend of mine, he directed us to Mt Tairappyo for a little tour. It has fallen around 15cm overnight so we were expecting some nice conditions. The way up was fairly easy and from the top, we were able to get our first glimpse of the mountain range.
We were both amaze by how big the mountains were and how steep some lines looked.

We kept ourselves from doing anything too stupid considering the snow conditions and we skied down the main face of the mountain.
Since we skied a west face in late afternoon, the powder had already started to get a bit more wet. The sun is really strong here and it really bakes the snow laying on the south and west facing aspects around.
The following day, we headed with Guillaume and one of his friend to Mt Daigenta to ski some glades he had scouted and who were straight north facing. It seems that is has been really windy around since all the snow we skied were some kind of wind crust.
Considering all this, we drove towards Minakami to ski Tanigawadake Tenjindaira. This tiny little hill (3 double chairs) usually ranked in the top 3 resorts for the most snow in Japan. If you add this statistic to the sick backcountry terrain just next to the hill, you have one of the best option for some great turns.
Unfortunately for us, the weather has started to warm up quite over the freezing level and we had to forgot any plans about riding some fresh, dry pow.

After two laps inbounds, Babiche had a little summit fever, so we packed our gear and started hiking towards Mt Tanigawadake. This big mountain lays just next to the ski hill and offers tons of option for some nice turns.
We made our way slowly to the top enjoying the nice, summer like weather.
From the top, the view was spectacular.
I had previously packed 2 beers and I don't remember having one in a more spectacular place! I can tell you that we enjoyed every sip of it.
After spending as much time as we could up there, it was more than about time that we headed down. The snow was soft and a bit melted by the warm weather.
We skied in some really beautiful light and finally arrived at the car just 15 minutes before total darkness.
That was a really great day out there and I was quite glad Babiche kicked my lazy ass up!
We'll now drive back towards Hakuba to see the spring-like conditions around there before the rain comes (yes there is some rain on the forecast now....)

It looks like it's going to be the last stretch of the Honshu journey since there isn't any rain forecasted on Hokkaido. Hopefully we'll be able to get some more dry stuff before we go back in 3 weeks!


Thursday, February 18, 2010

Finally YUKI!!!!!!!!!!!!!

We stayed around Nozawa Onsen for one more day. By using some really interesting information about the slackcountry we were able to have a fairly decent day skiing the mountain.

Since the crust was still quite present, we moved towards Myoko Kogen which is about 1hour from Nozawa. That seemed to be the perfect place for Babiche to get his skills back...
Myoko receives an average of more than 14m of snow per year, so we figured it would be one of the first place to receive some snow to cover the still present rain crust. This area consists of 3 main resorts (Myoko Suginohara, Myoko Ikenotaira and Myoko Akakura (which is also subdivided in Akakura Kanko and Akakura Onsen)) all of them are on the slopes of Myoko-san. There are also some smaller resorts nearby like Seki Onsen that receives more than 16m of snow!!!
We skied the slopes of Akakura Kanko which of the big three, seemed to suit us the best.

By getting in the wood (skiers left of the highest chairlift), we found some nice powder stashes but the crust was still present. At the end of the day, we met Bill Ross, who works for Myoko Backcountry Ski School as a ski guide. He gave us some really helpful information about some backcountry possibilities. After about 2 hours chatting, we had backcountry, slackcountry and riding options for the next month!

We then headed towards Tsunabe Onsen, which is a really great place to have a onsen. After soaking ourselves, we realized that it was snowing quite hard, so we parked the car in Seki Onsen ski area for a good camping-style curry and slept there.

On the following morning, we woke up to 30cm of fresh snow in the parking!!! After driving back and forth to Akakura Kanko (to realize they had receive only about 15-20cm), we made up our mind to hit the slopes of Seki Onsen.
We made the right choice!!!

There wasn't much skiers on this 2 lifts ski area (one double and one single!) so we were able to get some nice turns in.
After lapping the bottom chair for the whole morning, they finally opened the top lift. Babiche and I lucky out as we were able to get the first and second run from the top!!!
We were finally able to get some nice turns without feeling the crust. It was so good to get that soft feeling back again after about 10 days.

Today, it was a nice, warm and sunny day, so we went back to Akakura Kanko to ski some nice north facing slopes that we skied two days ago. We soon realized that we really made the right choice yesterday by skiing Seki, since only 15cm was sitting on top of the still present rain crust and every turns was coupled with a screaching noise...

So we made the decision to get back to the car, had some sake and enjoy some sunshine.

Etienne will be going back soon, so we'll head towards Hakuba from where he'll be able to get a direct shutlle bus back to the airport.

So we'll keep our fingers crossed to be able to get some more overhead turns!!!


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Roadtrippin' northern Honshu!!!!

So I am now on Japan's main island: Honshu.

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The ferry we took landed in Aomori on Honshu's northern tip from where we started our ski/drive (and a bit of touristing of course) mission.
I've heard really great things about a little resort called Hakkoda. It is only 30km from Aomori, so a nice gate to start with. It is a resort that got a similar layout than Asahi-dake: only on tram from where you can access an inbound backcountry style resort.
With 30cm overnight and a base near 300cm, we were really excited to ski it! We soon got disappointed as we figured out the resort was too flat to really enjoy all the snow that has fallen. We may haven't been able to find the best spots, but with an average slope of 10degrees, I just can't see how it can be somewhere steep.
We finally got to find a run where we were able to get some really decent turns, but to our point of view the runs were too short for the 4900Yens it cost for a day.
From Hakkoda, we drove south. I soon realize that driving on Honshu is quite a big change from driving on Hokkaido and I was quite glad to already have more than a month of right-side driving experience!!!
We took some really thigh winding roads (and by winding, you just cannot imagine how many turns per km there was!!!) and the traffic is getting quite intense!
We sometimes planned to use some road that (since we didn't understand they were closed) led us to some really big detour.

Our next stop was Hachimantai; a little resort that was also... closed.
With only 6in of fresh snow on the ground, we were debating about going or not. We solved our debate with rock-paper-scissor that turned the option of skiing down. Since we had cut our major time-consuming activity, we figured it would be a good time to tourist. We drove down to Morioka and spend our day walking around town.
The city wasn't that exciting, but still pretty interesting.
A really big difference we notice was that unlike Hokkaido, were the snow is spanking both the mountains and the cities, here it seems that most of the snow only hit the mountains. The architecture is also getting more and more Japanese. It can sounds a bit stupid, but looking at the buildings around Hokkaido, you just don't really feel to be in Japan. But the more I'm driving south the more I start to feel it.

From Morioka, we drove to a resort called Geto Kogen.
This resort average about 15m of snow per year which is the most around Iwate prefecture. We got there looking at what we first tought a dry mountain with moguls. After enjoying skiing all over the mountain under a nice blue sky looking, it started to snow hard and the visibility dropped to zero.
We used the low visibility to practice what I learned in Poaching 101. We skied right under the gondola and into the trees and enjoyed 30-40cm of nice, fresh and steady powder.
We skied all day leaving both the mountain and a heavy storm. We were both thinking that this wasn't probably the best thing to do but we had still some distance to cover.

We finally made it to Sendai after driving for 6hours. The distance on Honshu aren't that big but the traffic is can happen to be incredibly dense. We weren't using the toll-highway so we were sometime driving at about 20km/h for hours...

We had planned to hit Zao Yamagata on the following day, but again road closures changed our plans! The good news is that with more than 300 ski resorts in Japan, there more than one to look out! So we made it to Zao Eboshi were a blizzard was in full swing!!!
The wind was really blowing hard and with the slow lifts, we had to stopped twice to warm ourselves up!!! The snow was really nice, but as I was skiing, the wind was drifting the snow I just lifted in front of me leaving me with no visibility at all!! We both agreed that we weren't much in the need of knee deep powder to endure that kind of weather so we left after only 3hours of skiing.

Our next destination: Alts Bandai. It is a resort that is just under the magnificient mountain of Bandai-san where we were able to really tasted the urban densification in a resort.
When we arrived, it was snowing pretty hard and the streets were all wet. Since there is a lot of hot water available from thermal sources, they use it to melt the snow on the streets... it sometimes leave as a result a pretty unbalance melt over the same street.
We again lucky out since finally about 30-40cm of snow fell overnight (yes I know again)... We rushed ourselved all around the mountain excited as little kid to be sure we were skiing fresh tracks. It was a really nice powder day.
The good thing is that most local skiers aren't that great so they stay out of the advanced skier area. When everything started to be a bit tracked out to our tasted, we started skiing the trees... The day turned from good to great!!!!
We skied them until we finally realized that tree-skiing wasn't legal (oups....sumimasen!) on our last run!!!
We ended our day with what as become usual: taking an onsen.
We are now about 300km from Tokyo and there is not much ski on the forecast for me. Over the next few days, we will visit some sites, than I'll drive my Dad at the airport from where he'll be flying on the 11th.
On the same day, I'll be joining by Etienne and Babiche who will respectively stay with me for 10 days and 5 weeks!!!
The skiing-samurai!