Travel to Ride Deep Snow in Mystical Hakuba, Japan

An amazing aspect of travel is being able to visit lands that make one realize how similar daily life is for all people, while at the same time, gain a deeper understanding and respect for our differences. I was lucky enough to go to Tokyo in 2013 to experience one of the most interesting cities in the world. A city of more than 13 million people with the largest number of Michelin star restaurants. A city with 51 of the top 500 Fortune companies call home, and where artistic expression oozes from the fashion of the young.

Tokyo deftly juxtaposes ultra modernity with an underlying Buddhist mentality that suggests its residents should slow down and interact with others—in our case, tourists—with utmost care and concern, while continuing to be part of a neon fast-paced hustle that oozes productivity.

During my previous visit, I cherished my time there, visiting the Tsukiji Fish Market and witnessing thousands of pounds of sushi grade fish get bought and sold at auction, as well as spending nights in the Golden Gai bar district, where tiny bars seat only 5-7 people, and the personnel extended such warm welcomes that I often felt like I was at my own personal Cheers. And as an American traveling overseas, it was a relief to encounter a culture that seemingly appreciates numerous aspects of one’s “being American.”

So when the idea of returning to Japan to ride the legendary snow was bounced around among close friends, I was one of five who quickly volunteered. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to film our journey and share it with others in our western mountain town. What could be more rewarding than combining an epic vacation with the opportunity to explore a welcoming and unique culture?

With this in mind, Jeb Stuart, Matt Annetts, Casey Wesley, David Cleeland and I flew to Tokyo, Japan. We chose to head for Nagano/Hakuba via bus the next day, instead of going to the fabled North Island of Hokkaido. Hokaido and Honshu are in the path of Siberian storms and receive the most snowfall every year, but the mountains in Hakuba also get plenty of snow and are larger and steeper than any I have seen on North Island. Our decision was guided by Stuart’s contacts in the ski industry, which turned out to be spot on! Hakuba was the right call.

I have travelled a bit with my ski equipment, but nothing prepared me for the experience of carrying ski gear through the Tokyo mass transit system. We could not find a taxi that could accommodate us, so we were left to transit through Tokyo via the subway. In New York, one sometimes sees individuals using the subway system to transport wares, groceries, bicycles, etc., but in Tokyo, we were the only passengers on the packed platforms lugging gear.

An amazing and gratifying part of traveling through Japan is that if someone even looks a bit lost, someone morphs out of the crowd to offer help. This happened on at least four separate occasions, and each time the kind guides delivered us directly to the platform or bus stop where we needed to be. Such sincere hospitality is rare.

The bus from Tokyo deposited us in Nagano, home of the 1998 winter Olympics, where we caught another bus into the mountains and went on to Hakuba. We were welcomed at the bus station by a KEEN Japan Ambassador, Norihide Yamagishi, who grew up in Hakuba and whose parents own the skier hostel where we were staying. For around $70 a night, we were provided with lodging, breakfast, and dinner.  We felt as if we had chosen wisely since we were the only westerners there.

During the following week, we skied Cortina, Happo-One, Goryu and Hakuba 47. Every day in Jackson Hole, skiers race for the back-country gate, but in Japan, only a small stream of riders sample the out-of-bounds areas—not enough to track it out in two days or more. Waist-deep snow awaits those skiers who are trained to navigate the rarely compacted side and back-country of Hakuba’s resorts.

We returned to the pension every night famished and exhausted and were met with a feast. The Yamagishi family served meals consisting of 10-15 plates of various delicacies for us to enjoy. After dinner, we drank Suntory Premium Malts beer and told tales of powder endeavors, eventually ending the evening in the natural hot spring tub located on the lower level of the hostel.

A soak, a shower, followed by preparation for the next day: a skier’s dream Groundhog Day in one of the best places in the world to ride powder, observe culture and share time with great friends!

On our return trip to Tokyo, we opted for the bullet train that saves three hours of travel and runs six times a day. We headed for Shinjuku the night before we left to sample the food at the famous Robot Restaurant, a distinct and modern interpretation of a big city cabaret, which has been previously featured on Anthony Bourdain’s “Take on Tokyo.”

If you’ve been following the KEEN blog, you may know that I also skied 28 ski areas in 30 days, earlier this year: Colorado, Wyoming, California, Michigan, France, Austria and Switzerland, to name a few. While each place is truly unique and has it strengths and weaknesses, I can honestly say that skiing Japan is the coolest trip I think you can go on. The snow is DEEEEP, the culture amazing, and you will be welcomed into a country in a way you have never seen before. You will not be disappointed. So go next year — just go!