Tag Archives: niseko

The Best Part of Travel

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I love to travel. New sights, exotic foods, interesting conversations with strangers all stretch me a little.

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Niseko with Mt. Yotei in the background

Travel takes me out of my comfort zone, turns me upside down and gives me a shake until quarters (or perhaps yen coins) drop from my pockets.

I’m in Niseko on the Japanese island of Hokkaido in search of new experiences, legendary powder and the famous japanese powder trees. Excellent sushi, apres ski onsens (the japanese version of hot tubbing) and a lively little ski town doesn’t hurt either. We’ve been here for a week–hence the lack of new blog posts the past few days–and return today. Or tomorrow rather. We leave tomorrow and get back today. Or something like that. All I know is that we leave Sapporo at 2pm on Tuesday and arrive in Seattle at 8am the same day. It’s like a time machine. I’ve been playing Back to the Future in my head like an earworm, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!”

Yesterday we skied at a tiny area with one lift used by the military for training. It is surrounded by easy access backcountry peaks carved against the backdrop of the Sea of Japan. After a short skin above the lift, we carved down a protected face of fresh snow, the stellar crystals glinting in the sunlight layering itself across the slope like curtains of light.

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Hot spring at the base of Chisenupuri

Lap after lap we found untracked turns, until we skied down to the onsen and lowered ourselves into the steamy, sulfurous water. Our Japanese friend Kenji claims the sulfur warms you to your bones and soothes sore muscles. He might be right about that.

Sometimes, though, the best part of travel is returning home. Seeing new places can offer fresh perspective, it can scrub away the jaded edges that form around familiar viewpoints. Maybe flying 4,000 miles to ski powder makes you that much happier to know its piling up at home, filling in the jibbed-out lines and

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Chisenupuri with the Sea of Japan behind

resetting itself for your return. I appreciate more now the familiarity of skiing at home, knowing to ski Appliances when the wind blows from the south, how the sun and temperature affect particular lines, that the trees will protect the snow in Paradise when Exterminator, with a similar aspect, is burned to coral. That Powder Bowl stays dry and chalky even in the midst of record breaking inversion. That you can almost always find untracked lines beyond Boxcar.

I return now to yesterday, to the snow storm that’s blowing in Monday evening, even though its Tuesday morning here in Niseko. The sun is out here and it looks like a leftover kind of day. But yesterday it’s snowing at home.

Now all I need to do is channel some lighting into that flux capacitator and just maybe I can bring some of this japowder home with me.

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Where the Snow Lives: Niseko Japan

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Day 0.5

Niseko is where the snow lives.

When we arrived in the middle of the night on Monday, it was snowing hard. The banks along the street outside The Hooting Owl Lodge reached nearly to the power lines. The windows in our room were encased in snow. The next morning, it was still snowing. Several inches had accumulated in our footprints from the night before.

In the morning, Kenji, one of the caretakers at the lodge, asked me how long we were staying.

“We leave Friday,” I said.

He blinked. “Then where do you go?”

“Back to Seattle,” I smiled and craned my neck out the window to watch it snow as I sipped my coffee.

I knew Kenji was struggling. Japanese people are extremely polite (not to mention punctual, honest and in use of the best adjectives–happy! cute! skiing! fun times!). He probably didn’t want to offend me with a declaration of how crazy he thought it was to travel two whole days for two days of skiing.

But it wasn’t crazy; it was awesome.

Day 1

Japanese Powder Trees

With wind closing the upper mountain, we explored the “Japanese powder trees” of Grand Hirafu, gliding through the most forgiving tree skiing I’ve ever encountered. Cue the videographer; this skiing was just as good as what you see in the movies. No. It was better.

After a morning of braiding lines through the trees, we found a noodle house and ate the best ramen miso soup I’ve ever eaten. Prior to this trip, ramen was the domain of college students, made from hot water, dehydrated vegetables and foil packets. Not anymore

At the end of the day, I asked Kenji’s wife, Jen, if we should check out one of the local onsens. She just smiled and nodded. A visit to an onsen, a Japanese hot springs, is a must. You can hardly cross the street in Niseko without stumbling across an onsen, the closest of which, the Green Leaf Onsen, just so happened to be the best.  Regardless of culture, soaking tired muscles in hot water is a universal need.

That night Jen directed us to a small seafood restaurant that turned out to have “horse” on the menu. No matter. We weren’t there for the meat. Instead, we ate fresh sushi and more noodle soup and smiled and nodded to the waitress. It’s a good thing she understood hand signals and pointing.

Day 2

We woke to 20cm of snow as light and windless as down. Kenji dropped us off at the Niseko Gondola, and by look of the powder-drenched few who’d gotten the first cabin already returning to the non-existent queue, we knew today would be “the day”.

The sign says it all

We arrived at the top of the gondy in time for the single Wonderland Chair. We skied a run from the top of the volcano which I’m pretty sure was called “Snorkel” because you needed one in order to breathe. It was that deep. After lapping a few there, we headed toward Niseko’s Best Powder. In Japan, they aren’t afraid to advertise their best snow. We sessioned the trees to the right of the “Avalanche controlled area” and smiled through the snow in our teeth.

The day after any upper mountain is closed is almost always special, and Day 2 of our trip, the last day of our trip, was no different. In fact, it rated up there in one of the best days of skiing I’ve ever had. The powder was light, the trees were thoughtfully placed and the sun came out just long enough for each run.

It was like a dream.

Dreamy

On the gondola ride, each member of our group was sure they’d found the best snow, comparing and one-upping one another with reports of the consistency of snow, quality of light and depth of the face shots each received. We were all sure we’d found the best snow on the mountain, certain the others had missed out on “the goods”.

The ski day ended at the onsen, where we peeled our ski boots off and soaked our bodies in the outdoor hot springs. That night we ate at Kenji’s favorite sushi restaurant, Hana Yoshi, far off the beaten tourist track.

Once again, the use of hand signals and pointing did wonders for our ordering skills. We watched the sushi chef in awe. He was a true master

Day 3

We woke at 3am to start our return journey. Glancing at the forecast for Crystal Mountain this morning, I realized we might be bringing some of the snow back with us. If you’ve ever wondered if you should just up and go to Japan–or anywhere else for that matter–to check out the skiing, just do it.

You never know. You might just ski the best run of your life.

Ingrid Backstrom Wins Best Female Performance

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Seven days ago, John and I looked at the forecast for Niseko and thought maybe this would be a good week to go ski the deep Japanese powder everyone has been talking about. Ingrid Backstrom was at Crystal for the week, and we asked her if she wanted to go. In her humble Backstrom way, she thanked me profusely, but said she couldn’t join us. Instead she was supposed to be in Aspen. When I asked her why, she just shrugged and said, “The Powder Awards.”

Oh yes. The Powder Awards, in which viewers get to vote for their favorite performers. I, of course, voted a few months ago for Ingrid. I’ve known her since she was a young racer at Crystal, trying to act inconspicuous in the ski patrol room while her parents worked. In fact, it was Ingrid’s mom, Betsy, who taught me how to run a toboggan with finesse. As a petite woman running toboggans three times her weight, Betsy showed me how to press my hips down onto the handles to get the brake to bite in, allowing me to steer with my arms, rather than my quads. Now, when I teach new patrollers this skill, I always think of Betsy’s soft-spoken smile as she handily showed me the ropes.

This year, for the 5th time in her career, Ingrid won Best Female Skier. Way to go Ingrid. We may have missed a great week at Niseko, but I suppose winning this award was worth it. Check out this video in which Ingrid accepts her award and gracefully dedicates it to Sarah Burke. In case you were wondering, this is what it means to be a Backstrom.